A Literary History of Reconciliation: Power, Remorse and the Limits of Forgiveness 9781350027220, 9781350027237, 9781350027244, 1350027227

From William Shakespeare to Marilynne Robinson, this book examines representations of interpersonal reconciliation in wo

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Table of contents :
Cover......Page 1
Contents......Page 10
List of Figures......Page 11
Acknowledgements......Page 12
1 Introduction......Page 14
2 ‘None Left but by Submission’: Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation......Page 44
3 ‘Ask Her Forgiveness?’ Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare......Page 62
4 ‘Pray Your Honour Forgive Me!’: Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House......Page 90
5 ‘The Apathy of the Stars’: Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses......Page 136
6 ‘Not Quite Not Yet’: History, Forgiveness and the Literary Imagination in Disgrace and Atonement......Page 164
7 ‘The Prairie Still Shines like Transfiguration’: Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels......Page 194
Notes......Page 215
Bibliography......Page 233
Index......Page 243
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A Literary History of Reconciliation

Also published by Bloomsbury: Beyond the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, Michael Tomko Contemporary Fictions of Attention, Alice Bennett Forgiveness in Victorian Literature, Richard Hughes Gibson Jean-Jacques Rousseau and British Romanticism, eds Russell Goulbourne and David Higgins

A Literary History of Reconciliation Power, Remorse and the Limits of Forgiveness Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen

BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2018 Copyright © Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, 2019 Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. For legal purposes the Acknowledgements on p. xi constitute an extension of this copyright page. Every reasonable effort has been made to trace copyright holders of material reproduced in this book, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publishers would be glad to hear from them. Cover design: Toby Way Cover image © Rijksmuseum All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: HB: 978-1-3500-2722-0 ePDF: 978-1-3500-2723-7 eBook: 978-1-3500-2724-4 Typeset by Integra Software Services Pvt. Ltd. To find out more about our authors and books visit www.bloomsbury.com and sign up for our newsletters.

For John Garrison Amicus est tamquam alter idem

Is there no place Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left? None left but by submission. John Milton, Paradise Lost (1674) What I dream of, what I try to think of as the ‘purity’ of a forgiveness worthy of its name, would be a forgiveness without power: unconditional but without sovereignty. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001)

Contents List of Figures Acknowledgements

x xi

1 Introduction 1 2 ‘None Left but by Submission’: Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation 31 3 ‘Ask Her Forgiveness?’ Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare 49 4 ‘Pray Your Honour Forgive Me!’: Hierarchical Forgiveness from 77 Pamela to Bleak House 5 ‘The Apathy of the Stars’: Impersonal Reconciliation in To the 123 Lighthouse and Ulysses 6 ‘Not Quite Not Yet’: History, Forgiveness and the Literary Imagination 151 in Disgrace and Atonement 7 ‘The Prairie Still Shines like Transfiguration’: Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels 181 Notes Bibliography Index

202 220 230

List of Figures 1.1 Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–69), The Return of the Prodigal Son. 1636. Etching. Rijksmuseum. Mr and Mrs De Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland 2.1 Richard R.A. Westall (1765–1836), engraved by William Finden (1787–1852), Adam and Eve after the Fall. 1822. Illustration to the 1816/1822 edition of Paradise Lost, London, published by John Sharpe. Victoria and Albert Museum. Bequeathed by Eustace F. Bosanquet



Acknowledgements In writing this book, I have made grateful use of the advice and suggestions generously offered by colleagues and friends. My conversations with them also made the process of writing much more pleasurable, and the end result significantly more interesting and sophisticated, than it would otherwise have been. Of my colleagues at the Leiden Department of English, I am indebted especially to Evert van Leeuwen, Peter Liebregts and Michael Newton. In addition to sharing his knowledge especially of Modernism, Peter also listened patiently to my frequent, often rather prolix updates on the book’s progress, understanding that these served primarily to clarify my thoughts to myself as they took shape over the past eighteen months. Inger Leemans and Han van der Vegt took a reliably keen interest in the project and helped me develop my ideas during various lively and enlightening conversations. I have also benefitted from many stimulating classroom discussions with my students (perhaps more than they realize), especially on Milton, Shakespeare, Richardson and Godwin. I have been lucky in having had the chance to test out my ideas on various audiences in a number of (conference) talks, as well as in an earlier article. I am grateful to Karl Enenkel and Anita Traninger for inviting me to contribute a chapter to Discourses of Anger in the Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 2015). The essay on reconciliation (or what may happen after anger) in early modernity which I wrote for this volume contained the seed of this book. Sections of Chapters 1, 2 and 3 appeared in earlier versions as part of this essay, and I thank Brill for permission to reprint these. Kristine Johanson kindly invited me to present a paper on early modern literature and reconciliation at a conference on emotion history, held at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in 2014. Judith Pollmann asked me to give a talk on the theme of this book at the Leiden Institute for History; the debate with her and her colleagues at the Institute was inspiring and instructive. I am also grateful to Tuomas Tepora for inviting me to take part in a conference on the historicity of emotions at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, and to George Oppitz-Trotman for inviting me to speak on forgiveness and the language of debt in Paradise Lost at his conference on early modern debts at the University of Bamberg.



More than anyone else, John Garrison encouraged me to write this book. He also offered invaluable advice in drawing up the book proposal which I submitted to Bloomsbury and offered insightful feedback on the entire typescript. I dedicate this book to him, and to the spirit of friendship and generous collegiality which he embodies. In thanking John, I also express my gratitude to the Folger Shakespeare Library, where we both were Short-Term Research Fellows in the spring and summer of 2016, and which seems almost magically to create an atmosphere in which academic exploration and collaboration can flourish in all their unpredictability. It is also a pleasure, finally, to acknowledge my debt to Bloomsbury’s David Avital for believing in the project from the start. In spite of the help which I have enjoyed in researching and writing this book, its inevitable shortcomings are, of course, my responsibility alone. In deference to its main argument, I can only hope for the reader’s generous, non-transactional forgiveness – a form of readerly grace, if you will. As always, my deepest debts are to Tessa Kelder and to our son Otis, for making life adventurous, fun and full of grace.



Human relationships are marked by tension and conflict. This observation, which forms the starting point for this book, is self-evidently true for the geopolitical sphere, as well as for domestic military conflict. Yet as most readers know from experience, discord also emerges within the most intimate relationships, such as those between family members, friends, spouses and lovers. Conflict is also inherent in the asymmetrical power relationships – in terms of gender, class and race, for example – that are present in any society. This potential for conflict, present in many forms of human interaction, also means that all societies and cultures are faced with a pressing need to construct narratives of conflict resolution: to imagine the various ways in which conflicts can be settled, as well as avoided in the future, and to bring into being the formal processes and rituals that make reconciliation possible. While this need for reconciliation narratives is arguably universal, the meaning and forms of reconciliation are culturally constructed and therefore historically contingent: different eras and cultures conceive of interpersonal reconciliation in sometimes radically different ways. A single culture, moreover, can entertain various and potentially conflicting notions of conflict resolution, while its dominant reconciliation paradigms can change over time. The degree to which reconciliation varies over time and across cultures is also one important reason why it is deeply political, even in the most intimate settings. As David Blight writes in a study of the fraught attempts at reconciliation in post–Civil War America, ‘reconciliation is, of course, a noble and essential human impulse. But it must be understood within historical time, and as similar to any other political process that results from contests of human wills’.1 Rather than celebrating reconciliation as an unambiguous, unproblematic moral good, this book stresses the extent to which reconciliation is bound up with questions of hierarchy and power relations.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

A second starting point for this study is the idea that the ways in which a culture understands the nature of reconciliation can be fruitfully analysed by examining representations of conflict resolution in literature. Works of literature, I argue, play an important role in shaping the reconciliation paradigms available in a given culture. At the same time, they offer an often critical reflection on those paradigms – through the prism of the literary imagination. Furthermore, while a study of reconciliation in literary texts sheds light on the cultural history of reconciliation more broadly, it also illuminates the history of literature itself. Interpersonal reconciliation has been an abiding literary theme from, say, the reconciliation between Achilles and Agamemnon in The Iliad to the reunion between Patty Berglund and her husband Walter in the closing chapters of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom (2010). Beowulf, the earliest surviving narrative poem in the canon of English literature, is centrally concerned with the failure of conflict resolution and with the endlessness of tribal warfare. In terms of dramatic genres, comedy may be said to move towards reconciliation between parties initially at odds (with intergenerational conflict as an important category in Shakespearean comedy), while in tragedy, the full destructive potential of conflict is unleashed (with King Lear as a particularly potent example). As the French philosopher Olivier Abel notes, ‘We could recount the history of literature as the history of the representation of forgiveness.’2 This book is intended in part as a first step towards such a history. While recent work on literary representations of reconciliation has zoomed in on specific eras, I examine a timespan of approximately four centuries, focusing on literature in English from the early modern era to the present day, and with case studies from Britain, Ireland, South Africa and the United States.3 I trace a preoccupation with issues of reconciliation in William Shakespeare and John Milton, in prose fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Samuel Richardson, William Godwin and Charles Dickens), in two works of modernist fiction (Ulysses and To the Lighthouse), and in the works of three present-day novelists (J. M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan and Marilynne Robinson). While I focus on an inevitably limited set of case studies, I have aimed to be expansive in the concepts which I examine and have attempted to present a diverse view of the ways in which interpersonal reconciliation has been imagined by literary writers. For example, while reconciliation in the familial sphere figures prominently throughout this book, I stress its wider political ramifications. Indeed, as I will argue repeatedly, intimate or familial reconciliation offers a crucial paradigm for imagining reconciliation in the political sphere. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, examined in the last chapter, tease out the implications of this, while



J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace explores the problem of reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa in part through the problematic affair between David Lurie and his student Melanie Isaacs. I use ‘reconciliation’ as a general term for conflict resolution, or settlement of differences, regardless of the various forms and meanings which such resolution can adopt in specific cultural–historical contexts, or in specific works of literature. It is useful, in this context, to evoke one meaning of re-conciliāre, the Latin root of the verb ‘to reconcile’: ‘to re-unite’. Reconciliation, in the sense employed in this book, refers to any scenario in which parties that were formerly in conflict with each other arrive – or attempt to arrive – at some form of peaceful coexistence, and commit themselves – or try to commit themselves – to sustaining this coexistence in the future. Such a state of reconciliation can entail a renewal of friendly relations, or even of love; we might refer to this as ‘thick reconciliation’. Yet it can also take on a more minimalist character, for example when two parties agree not to pursue their conflicts in the future yet do not seek further rapprochement. This can be seen as a form of ‘thin reconciliation’, as when spouses forgive each other but still decide to separate. In many of the literary examples which I will examine, the reconciliation is between two characters, one of whom has wronged or been wronged by the other – or at least feels that this is the case. Yet such small-scale reconciliation can also serve as a metonymy for reconciliation in a broader, politico-historical sense. In Christian theology, the term ‘reconciliation’ has a more specific meaning relevant for the questions which this book examines: ‘The action of restoring humanity to God’s favour, esp. as through the sacrifice of Christ; the fact or condition of a person’s or humanity’s being reconciled with God.’4 Reconciliation, in this sense of the term, is equivalent to forgiveness of one’s sins by God. This suggests how deeply our notions of interpersonal reconciliation are indebted to the vocabulary of Christian theology. As will hopefully become clear in the course of this book, reconciliation between sinful human beings and God has served as an important template for interpersonal reconciliation since at least the early modern era. Nowhere is this more clearly visible than in the discourse of ‘forgiveness’ so frequently encountered in modern-day culture. While in everyday usage, the term ‘forgiveness’ is often employed as a shorthand for reconciliation and the settling of differences in general, it in fact carries a set of assumptions about the nature of reconciliation that are by no means timeless or universal. As we will see throughout this book, the act of moulding concepts of interpersonal reconciliation from the lexicon of divine forgiveness has farreaching consequences for the ways in which we understand conflict resolution


A Literary History of Reconciliation

between people. The following sections explore the issue of divine forgiveness and its relation to interpersonal reconciliation in more detail.

Remorse-based forgiveness: A modern reconciliation paradigm? As several scholars and commentators have noted, an especially dominant paradigm of reconciliation in modern-day culture is that of ‘remorse-based forgiveness’.5 Within this model of interpersonal reconciliation, a victim foreswears her feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness or rancour on the grounds that the wrongdoer feels genuine remorse and has successfully communicated this feeling to the victim. Both victim and wrongdoer, in other words, undergo a self-transformation. The wrongdoer now sees that his actions were morally wrong and acknowledges his guilt, and is therefore a different person than he was when he committed his crime. It is largely for this reason that the victim lets go of her anger and resentment towards him, or commits herself to doing so. The victim’s self-transformation revolves around this letting go of resentment, and her willingness to see the wrongdoer in a new light. The dominance of this reconciliatory paradigm can also be gauged from the moral importance which modern-day culture attaches to remorse more broadly. Indeed, the ability to feel remorse – as a combination of regret and moral guilt – is seen as a fundamental marker of moral personhood, a requirement for entry into the community of the morally sound, and a sign that one is capable of selfimprovement.6 Remorse, therefore, is thought of as a starting point for personal redemption. A perceived inability to feel remorse, by contrast, is often read as a fundamental moral and psychological defect that signals both a troubling inability to reflect morally on one’s actions and a perhaps even more disturbing inability to empathize with the suffering of others. As such, remorselessness serves as a mark of the sociopathic, ‘evil’ personality. As David Konstan has convincingly shown, this emphasis on remorse and moral self-transformation as a key to reconciliation in the human sphere was largely alien to classical antiquity. ‘Forgiveness’ in classical culture was not obtained by convincing the offended party that one feels deep remorse and is now a changed person, but precisely by denying responsibility for one’s wrongful actions. For example, one can plead ignorance; one can claim to have acted out of passion, anger or insanity, or to have been compelled to act in a certain way by external factors such as a storm or subjection to torture; or one can shift



responsibility on to others. For Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, it is in these ways that one can become eligible for συγγνώμη (sungnômê) – a term more accurately translated as ‘pity’, ‘mitigation’ or ‘excuse’ than as ‘forgiveness’ in the modern sense.7 A canonical literary example is Agamemnon’s insistence, in The Iliad, that he was not himself when he took Achilles’s war prize Briseis: I am not to blame! Zeus and Fate and the Fury stalking through the night, they are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart, that day in assembly when I seized Achilles’ prize. (19.100–103)

In addition to such appeals to force majeure, classical culture saw reconciliation as obtained through a show of self-abasement before a wronged party. As Konstan explains, Aristotle’s discussion of anger appeasement in the Nicomachean Ethics revolves entirely around ‘relations of status and power’, and he sees conflict as rooted predominantly in a violation of hierarchies, a belittlement of the offended party.8 Conflict can be resolved, therefore, by a reaffirming of the proper hierarchical relation between wrongdoer and victim, or by demonstrating renewed respect for the victim’s status. This is a matter of placating the offended party, rather than of seeking their forgiveness. An instructive literary example is Samia (The Woman from Samos), a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Menander. In this play, the complex conflict between Demeas and his son Moschio is resolved when Demeas eventually accords Moschio the respect to which he is entitled as an adult male, and as a fledgling father. In doing so, moreover, Demeas humbles himself before his son. Conflict resolution in this play, Konstan writes, is made possible by ‘a display of humility that shows a proper regard for the affronted party’s status and authority’.9 So ‘forgiveness’, in the full, remorse-based, modern sense of the word, seems to have been unavailable in classical antiquity. This view is to some degree contradicted by Laurel Fulkerson, who has shown that a concept akin to remorse in its modern-day sense is not altogether absent from classical culture. Achilles’s response to the death of Patroclus in Books 18 and 19 of The Iliad is an example: Achilles feels both responsible and guilty for Patroclus’s fate. Yet not only is such remorse extremely rare in the Graeco-Roman world, but, unlike in modern-day culture, it did not figure as a key moral virtue either. As Laurel Fulkerson argues, classical antiquity emphasized instead the virtues of stability and consistency: ‘The remorseful individual in antiquity is, first and foremost, a person who has failed to act well rather than one who has learned a lesson. So where the modern observer is likely to privilege progress over initial mistake, the ancient observer


A Literary History of Reconciliation

sees the error much more vividly.’10 The classical ethical imperative is to behave in such a manner that situations in which one must feel remorse do not arise in the first place. Perhaps more surprisingly, remorse-based forgiveness also does not figure as a model for interpersonal reconciliation in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the church fathers. Christian theology is of course centrally concerned with remorse and forgiveness, yet the focus in the church fathers was first and foremost on divine forgiveness – on repairing the damaged relationship between God and sinful humanity. Remorse for one’s sins was an emotion which one felt – and was obliged to feel – before God, not before fellow-human beings. Both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and early Christian theology were innovative in defining the relation between God and humanity strongly in terms of sin and forgiveness, and in defining sin not in terms of specific wrongdoings but as a general human state. Since God sees into the deepest recesses of our soul, this state of sinfulness cannot be reasoned away or excused. St Augustine captures this sense of utter exposure before God in a famous passage in the Confessions: O Lord, the depths of man’s conscience lie bare before your eyes. Could anything of mine remain hidden from you, even if I refused to confess it? […] O Lord, all that I am is laid before you. I have declared how it profits me to confess to you. And I make my confession, not in words and sounds made by the tongue alone, but with the voice of my soul and in my thoughts which cry aloud to you. Your ear can hear them. (207)

Yet this forgiveness model was not extrapolated to interpersonal relations. Indeed, even Christ’s pronouncements on interhuman forgiveness do not stress the importance of contrition and repentance. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Christ’s most famous statement on the subject, presents forgivingness towards others as a duty because we are all sinful before God: ‘For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matth. 6:14– 15). God’s graciousness towards sinful human beings entails a duty to be similarly gracious in our dealings with others; a wrongdoer’s heartfelt remorse does not enter the equation. Likewise, Christ’s prayer to God to forgive his crucifiers on the grounds that ‘they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34) echoes not so much Christian theological models of forgiveness but Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which pleading ignorance is one way of obtaining sungnômê. The rarity of remorse-based forgiveness in classical antiquity offers a compelling example of the cultural–historical contingency of reconciliation.



The core question which Konstan ultimately poses is when Christian models of divine forgiveness came to be applied systematically to interpersonal relations, and when remorse became an issue in scenarios of interpersonal reconciliation. He tentatively locates the first stirrings of this shift in the early modern era, with Molière’s Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671) and Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (1590s) as examples, yet he sees a more decisive shift during the late eighteenth century, in Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals (1797). My aim in this book is not to pinpoint a precise originary moment for the modern, remorse-based model of interpersonal reconciliation. Yet I do hope to show that it has a long-term presence in literary texts that goes back at least to the early modern era. A useful starting point for approaching this issue can be found in a passage in Henry Fielding’s great picaresque novel Tom Jones (1749), which both evokes and rejects remorse as the royal road to forgiveness. Tom Jones works towards a marriage between Tom and Sophia Western, yet the former’s past sexual escapades seem to have placed him ‘beyond all hope of [Sophia’s] forgiveness’ (855) and therefore pose the central obstacle in the way of the novel’s comic ending. In the penultimate chapter, Tom attempts to gain Sophia’s forgiveness by stressing the intensity and authenticity of his remorse over his past actions: ‘No repentance was ever more sincere. O! let it reconcile me to my heaven in this dear bosom’ (865). Sophia’s response is revealing: ‘Sincere repentance, Mr Jones’, answered she, ‘will obtain the pardon of a sinner, but it is from one who is a perfect judge of that sincerity. A human mind may be imposed on; nor is there any infallible method to prevent it. You must expect however, that if I can be prevailed on by your repentance to pardon you, I will at least insist on the strongest proof of its sincerity’. – ‘O! name any proof in my power,’ answered Jones eagerly. ‘Time,’ replied she; ‘time, Mr Jones, can alone convince me that you are a true penitent, and have resolved to abandon these vicious courses, which I should detest you, if I imagined you capable of persevering in.’ (865)

As Sophia explains, Tom applies the language of divine forgiveness to human relations: interpersonal reconciliation is to be reached via the wrongdoer’s remorse. This brings with it an epistemological problem explicitly addressed by Sophia: only God can accurately gauge the sincerity of human remorse. Human beings have no reliable method for doing so, and this renders Tom’s appeal to remorse as a basis for reconciliation problematic. For Sophia, Tom’s self-transformation can only appear from concrete behaviour – not from his inner emotional state, which she sees as a matter between him and God. Such a


A Literary History of Reconciliation

change in behaviour takes time, moreover, and it is only after repeated entreaties that Sophia reluctantly hints at the required duration of his atonement: ‘“A twelve-month, perhaps,” said she. – “O! my Sophia,” cries he, “you have named an eternity”’ (866). The exchange between Tom and Sophia suggests that by the mid-eighteenth century, remorse-based forgiveness was culturally available as a model for interpersonal reconciliation yet could simultaneously be understood as deeply problematic. This insight can also be applied to many of the other literary case studies examined in this book. As will become clear in Chapter 3, the idea that remorse is the basis for interpersonal reconciliation is clearly present in Shakespeare, yet both its efficacy and its conceptual coherence are also questioned. In The Tempest, Antonio’s remorse remains unknowable, while Leontes’s remorse in The Winter’s Tale is never sufficient and never seems to render him eligible for forgiveness. As I argue in Chapter 4, William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams presents remorse-based forgiveness primarily as an instrument of political oppression. Remorse-based forgiveness is arguably evoked most insistently in Dickens’s Dombey and Son and Bleak House, yet even there, it remains fraught and at best partially effective. Literature offers a special perspective on the cultural history of interpersonal reconciliation and on the question of when remorse came to be applied to the interpersonal sphere. It allows us to see that the beginnings of this shift can be traced at least to the early modern era, yet also offers a critical examination of how models of divine forgiveness can or cannot operate in the interpersonal sphere. The latter holds true as much for J. M. Coetzee as it does for Shakespeare, and literature’s ability to address the subject of reconciliation in a spirit of critical, open-ended exploration is a key strand in this book. It should be emphasized, furthermore, that my literary case studies also draw on other religious reconciliation paradigms than remorse-driven forgiveness. Christ’s notion that in forgiving others, we imitate God’s forgiveness of sinful humans, for example, is evoked by Prospero in the epilogue to The Tempest, while it also figures prominently in Robinson’s Gilead novels. Likewise, the forgiveness offered by the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son – discussed in more detail below – haunts various literary works, from King Lear to Bleak House and Robinson’s Home. While Konstan offers a compelling analysis of how notions of interpersonal reconciliation are modelled on divine forgiveness, he leaves unexamined the question of how theological models of divine forgiveness in turn draw on secular discourses of conflict resolution. Yet discourses of divine forgiveness



are shot through with the secular language of power and subjection, drawing, for example, on classical notions of reconciliation as a matter of self-abasement and supplication. In this sense, the conceptual traffic between divine and interpersonal reconciliation goes in two directions. We cannot overlook the role which the language of power and hierarchy plays in the theology of divine forgiveness.

Divine forgiveness: Contrition, self-abasement, grace As Martha Nussbaum explains in her recent study Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (2016), Christian theology has construed divine forgiveness on the one hand as deeply transactional and conditional, and on the other hand as a matter of unconditional, loving grace. In one dominant strand of Christian theology, that is to say, divine forgiveness, or humanity’s reconciliation with God, is conditional upon a set of acts on the part of the sinner. In late medieval theologies of justification, the first of these is remorse, or contrition of heart (contritio cordis), the term more frequently used in theological discourse. The Council of Trent defines contrition as a form of inward repentance: ‘a sorrow of soul and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future.’11 In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas sees contrition as one important cause of forgiveness, stating that the sorrow over sin that comes with contrition ‘is also a kind of punishment’, and that ‘it may be so intense as to suffice for the remission of both guilt and punishment’.12 The twelfth-century scholastic theologian Peter Lombard believed contrition, as a deeply felt inner state, to be the only requirement for forgiveness.13 Twelfth-century theology also developed a tripartite process of penance, in which contrition would precede confession of mouth (confessio oris) and works of satisfaction (satisfactio operis): a confession of one’s sins and a repaying of one’s spiritual debt to God by means of good works such as fasting or a pilgrimage. An influential late medieval model of divine forgiveness, codified by thirteenth-century scholastic philosophers such as Gabriel Biel and Robert Holcot, held that God is obliged to show grace to any person who has done quod in se est (‘what is in him’) – that is to say, to anyone who has done everything in their limited human power to earn grace.14 Divine forgiveness, on this reading, is a fundamentally transactional affair – a pactum, or covenant, between God and humanity, in which both parties must meet certain obligations.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Contrition, as a deep awareness of and sorrow for one’s sins, brings with it a deep sense of humility. Indeed, divine forgiveness requires that sinful humans abase themselves before God. Analysing the language of forgiveness in the late medieval Latin hymn Dies Irae, Nussbaum argues that the repentant sinner seeking forgiveness approaches God in a lowly, ‘suppliant posture’: Ingemisco, tamquam reus: Culpa rubet vultus meus: Supplicanti parce, Deus. [I moan like a guilty criminal. My face blushes with my fault. Spare me, God, your suppliant.]15

Nussbaum comments that the hymn depicts a ‘demanding and an angry God, who, nonetheless, if sufficiently supplicated, may opt for forgiveness, in the sense of turning from anger and not exacting the merited punishment’.16 The speaker’s abject supplication with God in this hymn echoes classical rituals of supplication, as encountered, for example, in final book of The Iliad, when Priam supplicates with Achilles for the return of Hector’s body, kneeling before Achilles and clasping his knees.17 As Leah Whittington explains, supplication revolves around a radical disparity in power between suppliant and supplicatee: ‘The suppliant makes a request not as an equal partner, but from a posture of total powerlessness.’18 This posture of total powerlessness is also adopted by the sinful human seeking divine forgiveness. The contrite speaker in Dies Irae confesses his sins in a psychological form of self-abasement, an utter exposure of his sinful self to God’s wrathful gaze: ‘Iudex ergo cum sedebit, / Quidquid latet, apparebit’ [Therefore, when the judge will sit, / Whatever is hidden will appear].19 The emphasis on humility before and supplication with God also informed Reformation understandings of divine forgiveness. A morning prayer in the Book of Common Prayer begs God not to despise ‘humble and contrite hearts’ (sig. A[2]1) and urges the faithful to confess their sins ‘with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart’ (sig. A[2]1v). The Book of Common Prayer also stresses the necessity of remorse; a communion prayer addresses God as ‘our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgivenesse of sinnes to all them which with heartie repentance and true faith turne unto him’ (sig. N1v). A commination against sinners – ‘a recital of Divine threatenings against sinners’20 – presents forgiveness as intensely conditional on contrition and humility:



Let us therefore returne unto him, who is the merciful receiver of all true penitent sinners, assuring our selves that he is ready to receive us, & most willing to pardon us, if we come unto him with faithfull repentance, if we will submit our selves unto him, & from henceforth walk in his wayes, if wee will take his easie yoke and light burden upon us, to follow him in lowlines, patience and charitie, and bee ordered by the governance of his holy spirite, seeking alwayes his glory, and serving him duely in our vocation, with thankesgiving. This if wee doe, Christ will deliver us from the curse of the law, and from the extreme malediction which shall light upon them that shalbe set on the left hand. (sig. Q4v)

The conditional ‘if ’ repeats four times in this passage, suggesting that in order to be eligible for divine forgiveness, the sinner must meet an intricate set of requirements. As Michael Schoenfeldt has argued, seventeenth-century devotional poets such as John Donne and George Herbert address God in a comparably humble, supplicatory manner, drawing on the social language of subjection for their exploration of spiritual redemption.21 In a similar vein, seventeenth-century prayer manuals insist that ‘Christians [must] prove their devotion through fervent and importunate supplication of God’; reconciliation with God, on this understanding of prayer, requires human self-abasement.22 In spite of their emphasis on the conditional, transactional nature of divine forgiveness, the theological models outlined here also insist that grace represents a mysterious, free and unmerited gift, motivated by God’s love of humanity and not ultimately a response to, or the result of, human initiatives.23 Indeed, according to the fourteenth-century theologian Gregory of Rimini, it is in fact the free gift of divine grace that enables sinful human beings to experience contrition in the first place.24 This brings us to an alternative notion of divine forgiveness not as requiring contrition, confession and self-abasement, but as unconditional, non-transactional and rooted only in divine love. We find such a model evoked, for example, by the epic voice in Paradise Lost, which celebrates the Son’s ‘Divine compassion’ with sinful humanity, his ‘Love without end, and without measure Grace’ (3.141–42). The idea of divine forgiveness as rooted in divine love and compassion finds expression perhaps most famously in the parable of the Prodigal Son, narrated by Christ in Luke 15:11–32. At the beginning of the tale, the Prodigal Son claims his inheritance and leaves his father’s household. When he has spent his entire fortune on ‘riotous living’ (Luke 15: 13) and is hungry, destitute and desperate, he realizes how foolish he has been. He decides to return home, humble himself before his father, confess his sins and ask to be reaccepted into the household as


A Literary History of Reconciliation

a servant rather than as his father’s son. Yet although the son intends to do all of this, the father requires nothing of the kind. The forgiveness (if that is indeed the right term) which he offers his son in fact precedes any actions on the latter’s part: And when [the Prodigal Son] came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. (Luke 15:17–20)

The father finds himself overcome by love and overjoyed to see his son alive, while the son does not even get a chance to display the contrition and selfhumiliation which he had planned. Martha Nussbaum argues that the father’s response to his son’s return is not really forgiveness, but rather a form of loving generosity that does away with all forms of conditionality and humiliation, or assertions of moral superiority.25 From a theological perspective, such unconditional love is not incompatible with the idea of divine grace, yet the parable insists – by means of the crucial conjunction ‘but’ in verse 20 – that the apparatus of repentance, confession, remorse and self-abasement evoked by the son himself is not needed, and that the father’s love is the only reason why the son is ‘forgiven’.26 Indeed, the parable contains no suggestion that the father has to overcome feelings of anger or bitterness before forgiving his son; his compassion upon seeing his son in the distance is instinctive and instantaneous. When the more dutiful elder son expresses his misgivings about the unmerited generosity lavished on his prodigal brother, the father responds as follows: ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found’ (Luke 15:31–32). The King James Version’s ‘it was meet’ suggests that the father sees it as merely appropriate – in accordance with social decorum, as it were – to rejoice at the Prodigal Son’s return. Yet the Greek ἔδει (édei) also carries the stronger sense of ‘being absolutely necessary’, captured, for example, in the New American Standard Bible: ‘We had to celebrate and rejoice.’27 The father, that is to say, can do no other: he is compelled to celebrate by a deep love for his son and invites his elder son to join in that love.



The return of the Prodigal Son is hauntingly depicted in a 1636 etching by Rembrandt van Rijn (Figure 1.1).28 The etching underscores the reading of the parable outlined in the previous paragraph. It shows an emaciated Prodigal Son kneeling before his father, his face ‘brutally coarsened’, in tattered clothes and looking older than his father.29 The father bends forward, with bent knees, towards his son, his posture suggesting not authority or hierarchy but emotional closeness, visually echoing the son’s kneeling. The son has dropped his walking stick and is now supported by the father’s left hand, while the latter’s right hand

Figure 1.1  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–1669), The Return of the Prodigal Son. 1636. Etching. Rijksmuseum. Mr and Mrs De Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

touches the son’s back in a gesture of tenderness. The image suggests not only the father’s compassion with his son’s suffering but also his own desire to be reunited with him, and the anguish he felt during his absence. Rembrandt’s depiction of the reunion further gains in drama from the presence of two servants who have come to bring a robe and sandals yet invert their faces from the scene on which they are intruding. The elder brother, by contrast, does look intently at what unfolds before his eyes, attempting, it seems, to gauge its meaning. His presence, which mirrors that of the viewer himself, goes undetected by his father and brother.

Political forgiveness: Generosity, justice, oblivion In the return of the Prodigal Son, divine forgiveness seems severed from notions of hierarchy and subjection, motivated instead only by love and generosity. Rembrandt’s sketch also holds out the possibility of such unconditional forgiveness in the interpersonal sphere, even as it registers the unforgiving elder brother’s presence. Seen in this light, it is intriguing that forgiveness has become a dominant reconciliation model in the political sphere (in addition to its emergence as a paradigm of intimate reconciliation, outlined earlier in this introduction). Indeed, as Antony Bash observes, the emergence of forgiveness as a political concept constitutes one of the pivotal developments in its recent history. During approximately the second half of the twentieth century, Bash notes, forgiveness moved ‘from being primarily the focus of religious discourse and ethical reflection’ to become ‘a matter for nations as well as individuals’.30 The most celebrated example of political forgiveness is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up in 1995, which created a model of political reconciliation imitated across the world since then, in countries as diverse as Chile, Nepal, Canada and Germany.31 As we will see, the modern concept of political forgiveness, like its divine counterpart, stands precariously between conditionality and generosity, while it also has a fraught relation to the vocabulary of divine forgiveness. One of the most thoughtful and lucid theoretical models of political forgiveness has been offered by P. E. Digeser. Central to Digeser’s model is an attempt to define political forgiveness in non-religious terms, without recourse to theologically inflected concepts such as remorse. She therefore also rejects ‘sentiment-based’ notions of political forgiveness, which revolve around a letting go of resentment by victims and a wrongdoer’s contrition – around a human



capacity, therefore, for inward change.32 The remorse-based model of forgiveness discussed above relies, of course, largely on sentiment. Digeser proposes instead an illocutionary notion of forgiveness, in which victims release wrongdoers from their debt in a speech act carried out before a relevant audience who understand its import. This form of political forgiveness does not follow theological, contrition-based models but tracks more closely to the cancelling, or forgiving, of a financial debt. The efficacy of such forgiveness does not depend on whether or not victims eliminate their feelings of resentment or anger. Instead, political forgiveness relies on the publicly proclaimed possibility of a new start, a way of preventing the past from holding the present hostage: ‘a settling of past debts so that they do not haunt the future.’33 This also means that for Digeser, political forgiveness is by its very nature public and explicit; there is no such thing as sotto voce political forgiveness. Political forgiveness is most characteristically pursued when legal concepts of retributive justice fall short. As Julie McGonegal asks in response to critiques of postcolonial reconciliation as excluding any notions of criminality and responsibility, ‘is it possible for the crimes committed by the perpetrators of Apartheid to be accurately recorded and tallied up to create a sum total of meanings?’.34 Political notions of reconciliation and forgiveness rest on the idea that some forms of past injustice are so systemic, and their present-day legacy so pervasive, that they can only be addressed by acknowledging the limits – and even the impossibility – of legal redress and retribution. In an important sense, therefore, political reconciliation emerges precisely when societies attempt to come to terms with unforgivable wrongs – ones that overwhelm conventional notions of just retribution. Political forgiveness entails a recognition of the limits of justice, and a sense that in some cases, the pursuit of justice can be trumped by other values or goals, such as generosity and magnanimity, or a peaceful transition to democracy. At the same time, Digeser insists that in scenes of political forgiveness, justice cannot be foregone completely. In order for political forgiveness to be efficacious and morally acceptable, the demands of justice must be met on at least some basic level. For Digeser, this minimal level of justice revolves around truth-telling: political forgiveness, as a form of debt forgiveness, requires a ‘publicly verifiable account of the wrong’; ‘a shared account of what happened (who did what to whom)’.35 This view was also central to the South African TRC: the horrors and injustices of Apartheid could be overcome only if perpetrators publicly disclosed the truth about their crimes, in this way making forgiveness by their victims a possibility. Perpetrator’s remorse, by contrast, was not a prerequisite.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

This insistence on truth-finding – on revealing what happened in the past – seems fundamental to modern understandings of political reconciliation more broadly.36 Indeed, it points to a fundamental difference with earlier, and especially early modern, conceptions of political forgiveness. As will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 2, early modern governments defined reconciliation after civil war, for example, not in terms of truth-finding but as requiring a form of oblivion. Indeed, as Judith Pollmann explains, ‘from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, acts of oblivion were a favourite instrument in any peacemaker’s toolkit’.37 The Indemnity and Oblivion Act proclaimed by Charles II in 1660 offers a case in point: Charles’s professed aim was to bury the collective memory of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The purpose of political oblivion was in fact highly similar to one crucial aim of modern-day political forgiveness, namely to ensure that the horrors of the past ‘cannot serve as the basis for legitimate claims in the future’.38 In this way, it becomes possible for a society to move forward. Similarly, acts of oblivion do not in the first instance mean that one no longer has knowledge of the past, but rather ‘that this knowledge is now, not merely of but also in the past; it does not bear on the present’.39 In recent history, too, political forgetting has been adopted as a reconciliation strategy, for example in Brazil, Guatemala, Spain and Argentina. In such cases, the decision not to pursue truth stemmed from a tragic awareness that the pursuit of truth would antagonize a nation’s armed forces and therefore endanger the very transition to democracy that governments were seeking to safeguard.40 Yet the idea that a state of political reconciliation can be obtained through a form of oblivion seems unacceptable in many modern-day societies and certainly cannot be held up as an ideal. We have seen that Digeser’s model of political reconciliation minimizes the relevance of the sentiments felt by either victims or wrongdoers, while it also elides religious vocabulary. Yet religious discourses have a way of insinuating themselves into modern-day political forgiveness. In his book No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu famously reads the hearings by the South African TRC in deeply religious terms, invoking the full vocabulary of divine forgiveness, including contrition, confession and redemption. While such religious discourse certainly did not dominate the hearings themselves, it did crop up in a number of prominent cases, for example in the hearing of Jeffrey Benzien, a member of the South African secret service under Apartheid, and in the statements made by Frederik Willem de Klerk, State President of South Africa from 1989 until 1994. As Ralf Wüstenburg notes, Benzien showed an empathy with his victims that can be seen as remorse, and his hearing evinces a strong sense that reconciliation



between wrongdoer and victim requires a moral transformation on the part of the former.41 De Klerk evoked religious language more explicitly, asserting that ‘the National Party is prepared to admit its many mistakes of the past and is genuinely repentant. In our quest for reconciliation we have apologized […]. And we have gone on our knees before God Almighty to pray for His forgiveness’.42 De Klerk here brackets political with divine forgiveness, yet the morally neutral phrase ‘mistakes of the past’ sits uneasily with the contrition which he claims to feel on behalf of the National Party. Indeed, in spite of his statement of remorse, De Klerk was also careful to deny political responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated by the Apartheid regime: ‘I want to make it clear from the outset that, within my knowledge and experience, they never included the authorization of assassination, murder, torture, rape, assault or the like.’43 De Klerk’s statement demonstrates how fraught the pursuit of truth can be in political contexts, while also underlining the problems posed by evocations of divine forgiveness in political contexts. Can a hearing by a truth commission reveal the ‘full’ truth of what De Klerk knew about the atrocities committed in the name of Apartheid? What does it mean for a political regime to humble itself before, and ask forgiveness from, God, especially if its representatives are also attempting to limit their own accountability? These issues have also been addressed by Jacques Derrida, in the second essay of On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, an illuminating critique of political reconciliation and its relation to religious notions of forgiveness. Derrida’s understanding of forgiveness hinges on his paradoxical proposition that ‘forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable’.44 To forgive an act that is intrinsically forgivable, Derrida argues, requires no special effort on the part of the forgiver. It is only in relation to the unforgivable, and therefore only as an impossibility, that forgiveness becomes meaningful. In a characteristically poststructuralist move, Derrida argues that the concept of forgiveness is haunted by what it would seem to exclude – by the very concept which it would seem to deny. For Derrida, this also implies that what he terms ‘pure forgiveness’ represents a form of ‘madness’: it is not ultimately granted on the basis of a wrongdoer’s remorse or commitment to mending his ways, or on any other act that would render the perpetrator and / or his misdeed ‘forgivable’. Indeed, forgiveness, for Derrida, functions as an unconditional, ‘gracious gift’ that escapes from any logic of exchange, analogous to the loving, generous forgiveness offered by the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son and to divine grace more generally. Forgiveness in this sense is ‘heterogeneous to the juridico-political, judicial, or penal order’: it resists political agendas, such as national reconciliation after traumatic violent conflict.45


A Literary History of Reconciliation

As we have seen, modern forgiveness paradigms transfer originally divine forms of forgiveness to interhuman relations, in both the personal and the political spheres. This conceptual move assumes that the relationship between humanity and God, insofar as it pertains to reconciliation, can serve as a model for inter-human relations. Yet, as Derrida points out, interpersonal forgiveness is necessarily tainted by history and politics, and therefore by relations of power: ‘each time forgiveness is effectively exercised, it seems to suppose some sovereign power.’ Political forgiveness, in other words, falls short of the divine forgiveness paradigm on which it is often modelled. Derrida does hold out the possibility of a form of forgiveness that escapes from power relations: ‘What I dream of, what I try to think as the “purity” of a forgiveness worthy of its name, would be a forgiveness without power: unconditional but without sovereignty.’46 Yet he presents this as only a distant, utopian possibility. We will find the question of political forgiveness addressed most directly in Chapters 6 and 7, on Coetzee, McEwan and Robinson – even though throughout this book, I stress the political dimension of all scenes of reconciliation, no matter how intimate or personal. As we will see, all three novelists examine the role of theological language in contexts of political reconciliation. They also share an awareness of the problems inherent in any attempt to understand political reconciliation – and even interpersonal reconciliation more broadly – in religious terms.

Reconciliation in literature: Power, grace and the limits of representation We have thus far seen a tension between transactionality and grace in Christian conceptions of divine forgiveness. On the one hand, forgiveness of sin requires contrite self-humiliation; on the other, it is a matter of unmerited, freely given, unconditional grace. This book can be seen as an examination of what happens when this model of divine forgiveness transfers to the human sphere and comes to serve as a template for interpersonal reconciliation. In all of my literary case studies, interpersonal reconciliation is modelled – at times explicitly and at other times implicitly – on divine forgiveness, and suspended, therefore, between the poles of transactionality and grace. This book contends that interpersonal reconciliation – certainly in the literary texts analysed in this book – centrally concerns power and hierarchy. Just as divine forgiveness requires human self-abasement before one’s creator,



interpersonal reconciliation rarely occurs between equals. Rather, it emerges within relationships characterized by a disparity between the forgiven and forgiving parties. Behind any reconciliation lurk a set of assumptions about whose sense of injury is most significant and legitimate; about what actions count as morally reprehensible; about who has a duty to feel remorse for their wrongful actions and to ask for forgiveness from others; about who has the right to grant or refuse forgiveness; and about what wrongful actions are forgivable. These assumptions do not take shape in a social vacuum, but are conditioned by the power relations and hierarchies in a given society or culture. This is also true for literary representations of reconciliation. In the eighteenth and nineteenth-century case studies examined in Chapter 4, for example, it is often female and low-ranking characters who occupy positions in which they must beg forgiveness – or pardon – from their male, often aristocratic superiors. In spite of this, forgiveness is also imagined as a specifically female task and forgivingness as a specifically female virtue. Unlike the male prerogative to forgive or not forgive, however, such spontaneous female readiness to forgive does not signify power, in that those at its receiving end are male figures of authority. Forgiveness discourses, therefore, grant powerful male characters both the right to proffer or refuse forgiveness and an entitlement to being spontaneously and unconditionally forgiven for any faults of their own. In this sense, cultural narratives and practices of reconciliation are part of what Raymond Williams called the ‘structures of feeling’ that maintain a given social order – they form part of the ways in which social beliefs and ideologies are ‘actively lived and felt’.47 By analysing scenes of reconciliation, therefore, we can gauge some of a culture’s most fundamental assumptions about itself. Indeed, it is precisely because conflict is so endemic to human relations that concepts of conflict management and conflict resolution touch on the basis of society itself: a culture’s ways of understanding and practising reconciliation are simultaneously ways of managing and sustaining its power relations and social hierarchies – and potentially, in some cases, of challenging or transforming them. In On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), Nietzsche famously dismissed the Christian notion of forgiveness because it ‘exalts weakness, and renounces the violence that sustains power’.48 He ‘recommends forgetting instead of forgiving’, citing the French orator and revolutionary Mirabeau as an example of one ‘who had no memory for insults and vile actions done him and was unable to forgive simply because he—forgot’.49 My critique of forgiveness in this book, by contrast, is that it forms an instrument, rather than a renunciation, of power. Discourses of forgiveness, especially in my pre-twentieth-century case studies, help to


A Literary History of Reconciliation

perpetuate relations of power, in part by recasting these relations in non-political, spiritualized terms: contrite submission before a fellow human being parallels a sinner’s supplication with God. Forgiveness discourses, therefore, can work to conceal the political nature of human hierarchies, wrapping power relations in a spiritual veneer. In this sense, modern-day scenes of political forgiveness are effectively an attempt to invert the political meaning of forgiveness. Instead of serving to shore up existing power inequities, the language of forgiveness is now employed to acknowledge the reality of systemic injustice, and to recognize the suffering of the victims of oppression – even as political forgiveness also concedes the impossibility of obtaining full justice for those victims. Yet modelling interpersonal reconciliation on divine forgiveness can also have the effect of turning interpersonal reconciliation at least potentially into a form of grace. A human forgiver can forgive her wrongdoer not by insisting on remorse and self-abasement but through a gesture of generosity akin to the unmerited, freely given, unconditional grace offered by God to sinful humans, and to the generosity shown by the Prodigal Son’s father. The idea that reconciliation between humans resembles that between God and humanity holds out the utopian possibility of what Jacques Derrida, as we have seen, terms a ‘forgiveness without sovereignty’. In such a scenario, forgiveness does not serve to sustain and legitimate existing social hierarchies and asymmetrical power relations – between men and women or between social classes, for example – but potentially offers a way of challenging or even transcending those hierarchies. Likewise, this form of forgiveness can be seen as aneconomic, in that it involves no conditionality or exchange.50 As we will see, writers persistently reflect on the forms which forgiveness without power might take. At the same time, they imagine such utopian forgiveness to be elusive. Indeed, non-hierarchical, non-transactional forgiveness – forgiveness as a kind of grace – hovers on the edge of literary representation. This form of reconciliation can be gestured at and aspired to, but it ultimately remains hypothetical. Forgiveness in its utopian guise can ultimately be imagined only in subjunctive terms: imaginable and wished-for but beyond reach. In this sense, the limits of forgiveness coincide with the limits of literary representation. This, in turn, speaks to why literary representations of reconciliation constitute a crucial object of study. While this holds especially true for the notion of forgiveness as grace, there is something elusive and utopian about reconciliation more broadly. As we have seen, forgiveness, in modern understandings, implies a letting go of feelings of resentment, bitterness and anger. Yet resentment is frequently imagined



as tenacious, residually present even in what may seem the most felicitous instances of reconciliation. What Sir Dedlock in Dickens’s Bleak House terms ‘full forgiveness’, in which resentment seems to have evaporated completely, rarely occurs (and in Bleak House, it comes too late). And even if one can successfully overcome resentment and offer a kind of grace, this does not necessarily mean that the power relations between the forgiven and forgiving parties will be transcended. Indeed, to claim that one has conquered one’s feelings of resentment, and forgives fully, can be an effective way of asserting moral superiority over others. Prospero’s forgiveness of Antonio offers a case in point. Conversely, the onus of being gracious can fall precisely on the powerless – as in various forgiveness scenes in Dickens – and thus reinscribe dominant social hierarchies. Literary writers, then, imagine reconciliation as longed for but never fully realized. An important reason for this may lie in the deep cultural links between interpersonal and divine reconciliation. As we have seen, narratives of interpersonal reconciliation – in both the intimate and the political spheres – mirror theological models of divine forgiveness. Interpersonal reconciliation, therefore, is premised on a paradigm of which it can only fall short – to which it can aspire but with which it will never be fully coterminous. In an illuminating essay, Anthony Bash insists on the differences between divine and interpersonal forgiveness. In his view, the latter is derived from divine forgiveness in the sense that divine grace precedes the human capacity to forgive, while also constituting an imperative to be gracious to others. Yet interpersonal reconciliation is also fundamentally more limited and less efficacious than divine forgiveness. While God, in forgiving sinful humans, ‘discharges [them] from their moral culpability’, human beings themselves ‘cannot undo, reverse or erase the fact of having violated the moral order. Only God can do those things’.51 In a similar vein, Virgilio Elizondo writes that ‘to forgive means to uncreate, but as only God can create out of nothing only God can return to nothing what has already come into existence. So it is only God who can uncreate, it is only God who can truly forgive’.52 This human inability to undo the wrongs of the past, and therefore to forgive fully, resonates in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement and also informs J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, in which post-Apartheid reconciliation is imagined as requiring an uncreating of all existing social positions and categories, and even of literature itself. If, according to Hannah Arendt, political forgiveness offers a way of escaping the vice-grip of the past, and of being redeemed from what she terms the ‘predicament of irreversibility’, Atonement and Disgrace evince a


A Literary History of Reconciliation

deep pessimism about the possibility of such an escape.53 Yet all of my literary case studies are to some degree haunted by the thought that human forgiveness is a lesser form of divine forgiveness: imperfect, irreparably tainted by lingering resentment or unrelieved remorse, or by the persistence of power and oppression.

Overview of the chapters My literary history of reconciliation begins with an analysis of divine and interpersonal reconciliation in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674). This is followed by a chapter on reconciliation in four plays by Shakespeare. While a strictly chronological ordering would place my reading of Paradise Lost after the chapter on Shakespeare, I begin with Milton for three reasons. First, Milton’s epic can be seen as offering a genesis of reconciliation: a narrative account of how the need for reconciliation, both between God and humanity and between human beings, came into the world. It therefore allows us to map some of the issues pursued throughout this book. After the Fall, not only do Adam and Eve need forgiveness from God, but they also face the task of resolving conflict between each other. Second, Paradise Lost enacts the tension in divine forgiveness between submission and grace outlined earlier in this introduction. While the poem insists that divine forgiveness of fallen humanity derives from the Son’s limitless love and compassion for humanity, Adam and Eve also must feel humble contrition before God. Indeed, Satan sees only this latter dimension of divine forgiveness, construing forgiveness as revolving exclusively around self-abasement on his part. Third, Paradise Lost examines the conceptual relations between divine and interpersonal reconciliation with which this book as a whole is concerned. It sheds light, therefore, on what happens when notions of divine forgiveness transfer to human relations. While Satan’s understanding of divine forgiveness is limited and reductive (if not entirely inaccurate), his view on reconciliation can be readily applied to the interpersonal sphere, certainly as portrayed in Paradise Lost itself. The postlapsarian reconciliation between Adam and Eve is thoroughly hierarchical, made possible by Eve’s humble supplication with Adam, which in turn prefigures their subsequent collective supplication with God. In this sense, the readings of literary scenes of interpersonal reconciliation in this book can be characterized as in part Satanic; in his insistence on the power dynamics built into forgiveness, Milton’s Satan is a cultural materialist avant la lettre. Chapter 3 turns to the representation of reconciliation in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1603–04), King Lear (1605–06), The Winter’s Tale (1609–10)



and The Tempest (1610–11). Like the chapter on Milton, it traces the relations between reconciliation, power and grace, yet with an exclusive focus on the interpersonal sphere. All four plays, I argue, are preoccupied by the idea that reconciliation can be a way of asserting or restoring relations of power and hierarchy. To an important extent, this is made possible by the fact that Shakespeare’s vision for interpersonal reconciliation is steeped in the language of divine forgiveness. At the same time, the plays examine how reconciliation, while still modelled on divine forgiveness, could challenge hierarchy and power, and operate as a form of radical, and politically subversive grace. In Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio puts theological understandings of remorse and forgiveness entirely in the service of state power, with his ability to instil remorse in his subjects a crucial index of that power. The play also evokes alternative, more egalitarian theological notions of forgiveness, represented especially in the figure of Isabella, yet these are ultimately ousted by the Duke’s appropriation of forgiveness as an instrument of power. King Lear arguably contains the most radical instance of generous, loving forgiveness in the Shakespearean canon: Cordelia’s forgiveness of Lear, captured in her famous ‘no cause’ (4.7.75). Yet in the tragic world of the play, such radical forgiveness remains fleeting, having little bearing on the outcome of the play. Moreover, while Lear’s contriteness before the daughter he has wronged suggests an inversion of the politics of forgiveness, the reconciliation scenes in the play do not ultimately escape from a hierarchical dynamic similar to that in Measure for Measure and in Paradise Lost. The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest present further, only partially successful attempts to disengage reconciliation from hierarchy and disparities in power, as well as to imagine the role of grace in scenes of interpersonal reconciliation. The chapter on Shakespeare also introduces a second theme of this book, that will return especially in the final three chapters: reconciliation in works of literature is elusive, forever deferred, situated at or even beyond the limits of literary representation. Of the Shakespeare plays which I discuss, this is especially applicable to The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Both plays evoke a parallel between reconciliation and theatre itself – and the act of watching a play performance – in the coming to life of Hermione’s statue, and in Prospero’s prayer for forgiveness from the audience. Yet in both cases, ‘full forgiveness’ does not in fact occur within the time of the play, postponed to an imagined future beyond the play itself. No clear forgiveness occurs between Leontes and Hermione; at their reunion, Hermione blesses their daughter Perdita but does not address her husband. Indeed, the most successful moments of forgiveness in


A Literary History of Reconciliation

the play – for example that between Leontes and Polixenes – seem to be those that take place offstage and are recounted by onstage characters. In The Tempest, not only are Prospero’s acts of forgiveness fraught with lingering resentment, but the climactic forgiveness of Prospero himself is left to the audience, and transferred, therefore, to a time beyond the play. Chapter 4 examines the politics of reconciliation in four works of prose fiction published between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), William Godwin’s Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), and Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846–8) and Bleak House (1852–3). I argue that reconciliation is central to these four novels, both thematically and in terms of plot structure. The moments of reconciliation which they work towards, moreover, are fundamentally bound up with, and serve to confirm, the hierarchies and relations of power that govern the societies which they depict – hierarchies, that is to say, between the sexes and social classes, and within the family. At the same time, these novels attempt, in varying degrees of intensity, to imagine ways in which forgiveness can escape from power. Pamela and Caleb Williams address the relations between forgiveness and power head-on. In Pamela, the language of forgiveness initially underwrites and legitimizes class and gender hierarchies. It is Pamela herself, as well as other servant characters, who habitually asks for pardon and forgiveness from Mr B., most characteristically when she has shown insufficient deference and obedience towards him. It is her spectacular achievement that she eventually succeeds in making Mr B. realize that, in thinking of her as his sexual property, he has in fact wronged her, and is in need of forgiveness from her. Yet this inversion of the politics of forgiveness is both incomplete and temporary. Caleb Williams is more thoroughgoing than Pamela in its indictment of forgiveness discourses as an instrument of social injustice. In Godwin’s novel, both the right to feel wronged and the decision to forgive or to retaliate against wrongdoers are aristocratic prerogatives. This political dimension of forgiveness, moreover, is not so much imposed on, but rather shared and internalized by lower-ranking characters such as Caleb himself. The two Dickens novels discussed in this chapter turn almost obsessively to the issue of forgiveness, containing numerous scenes of forgiveness, and examining various ways in which forgiveness can work as a form of comic closure. Both novels also offer fascinating case studies in the politics of forgiveness. In Dombey and Son, it is Florence Dombey who not only generously offers forgiveness to her abusive father, but also humbly asks forgiveness



from him for having left the family house after he struck her. It is Florence’s act of asking for forgiveness that is the most pivotal in narrative terms: by acknowledging Dombey’s patriarchal right to withhold or grant forgiveness, she enables him to recognize that he has wronged her and is therefore in need of forgiveness too. The subversive effect of this recognition is undermined by Florence’s prior display of contrite self-abasement before her father. Bleak House can be seen as radically different from the other novels examined in this chapter, in that it presents an act of unconditional, spontaneous, loving forgiveness by an aristocratic and patriarchal figure: Sir Leicester’s Dedlock ‘full forgiveness’ of his ‘fallen’ wife, Lady Honorea Dedlock, who gave birth to an illegitimate daughter before marrying Sir Leicester. This moment can be seen as Dickens’s attempt to imagine how grace might operate in the interpersonal sphere. At the same time, it is compromised by Sir Leicester’s inability to question the ideological assumption that a ‘fallen woman’ is in need of forgiveness from a male figure of authority, and his forgiveness fails to undo the damage which this assumption has caused. Sir Leicester’s assumptions about the political meaning of forgiveness are shared, moreover, by Lady Honorea herself. Other characters who fall victim to the injustice depicted in Dickens’s novel – such as Richard Carstone and Jo, the orphan crossing sweeper – experience a similar need to be forgiven. Like Caleb Williams, therefore, Bleak House presents forgiveness discourses as complicit in social injustice, and in sustaining social hierarchies: remorse is an emotion primarily felt by the oppressed, who blame themselves for their fate. At the same time, both Dombey and Son and Bleak House invite us to see acts of generous forgiveness by female characters – Florence and Mrs. Rouncewell, respectively – as redemptive, a powerful antidote to the intractable social and ideological problems which both novels put on prominent display. Chapter 5 turns to the early twentieth century, examining issues of reconciliation in two canonical modernist novels: Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Like Dombey and Son and Bleak House, both novels work towards scenes of reconciliation in the intimate, familial sphere. In the final section of To the Lighthouse, Cam forgives her domineering, demanding father, Mr Ramsay; in chapter 17 (‘Ithaca’) of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom accepts and forgives Molly Bloom’s infidelity. One important sense in which both moments of reconciliation differ from those encountered in earlier chapters of this book is that forgiveness remains uncommunicated by the forgiver. As readers, we are privy to the change in Cam’s feelings about her father, and to the ‘equanimity’ (602) which Bloom comes to feel about Molly’s infidelity. Yet neither Mr Ramsay nor Molly learn of their newly forgiven status,


A Literary History of Reconciliation

nor do Cam or Bloom feel any urge to inform them. Intimate forgiveness, in both novels, is a solipsistic, inward affair that affects primarily the forgiver. Indeed, Cam in part forgives her father because she comes to acknowledge his fundamental otherness and inscrutability. Yet this also means that forgiveness in these two novels remains elusive – incipient rather than fully achieved. In both novels, forgiveness is not occasioned by any moral change or act of contrition on the part of Mr Ramsay or Molly. This marks a crucial change from the hierarchical, transactional reconciliation paradigms analysed especially in Chapter 4. Indeed, both novels studiously avoid the patriarchal forgiveness scenarios encountered especially in Dickens. Instead of insisting on remorse and humiliation, both Cam and Bloom arrive at what can usefully be described as a kind of impersonal reconciliation. Cam is able to forgive her father during the journey to the lighthouse, when she finds herself surrounded by what she experiences as the impersonal character of the sea. The journey creates a distance from the Ramsay family house, and from the tense interpersonal relations associated with it. Likewise, Bloom arrives at a sense of equanimity by meditating on ‘the apathy of the stars’ (604): it is the idea of an indifferent cosmos that enables him to shed his own feelings of resentment. If this silent, non-conditional and non-transactional forgiveness can in some ways be seen as a form of grace, it is a secularized grace that is never aligned with divine forgiveness. Indeed, in the figure of Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses all but explicitly rejects the language of divine, remorse-driven forgiveness, while To the Lighthouse avoids any overtly religious vocabulary of reconciliation altogether. A third important shift in the intimate reconciliation scenarios in Joyce and Woolf is that they are explicitly offset against larger politico-historical contexts. In ways not encountered in earlier chapters, both novels pose the question of what bearing intimate reconciliation – especially in the paradoxically depersonalized form outlined above – can have on wider political and historical conflicts. As Chapters 6 and 7 show, this remains a crucial issue in how reconciliation is imagined in the later twentieth-century and twenty-first-century case studies which this book examines. In To the Lighthouse, these conflicts are represented primarily by the First World War, which tears into the fabric of the Ramsay family. In this sense, the small, unspoken, familial reconciliation between Cam and Mr Ramsay can be seen as a retreat from the larger, intractable conflicts that rage beyond the domestic sphere. In a similar vein, Ulysses contrasts the intimate reconciliation between Molly and Leopold with the legacy of Irish colonial history, evoked, for example, by Stephen Dedalus, and by the citizen in chapter 12 (‘Cyclops’). Leopold’s accepting attitude falls short as a paradigm



for addressing the violence of (colonial) history, and for reaching a form of reconciliation after such violence. This combined concern with reconciliation in the intimate and larger politico-historical spheres is central to the two novels examined in Chapter 6: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001). Disgrace focuses on the figure of David Lurie, and the question of his atonement for his exploitative affair with his student Melanie Isaacs. At the same time, the relation between Melanie and David serves as a metonymy for the issue of racial reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa. Indeed, Coetzee’s novel partly reflects on the political prominence of forgiveness discourses in South Africa during the mid-to-late 1990s, also referred to earlier in this introduction. In this sense, it can be seen as addressing the question, predominant in contemporary forgiveness studies, of reconciliation in post-traumatic societies more broadly. I argue that Disgrace presents the language of remorse-driven, divine forgiveness in such contexts as inadequate. Indeed, it imagines reconciliation after Apartheid as possible – or at least imaginable – only after a fundamental rethinking of all social categories, and even of the category of the human. Furthermore, in Disgrace, literature and art themselves undergo a radical process of stripping down, a casting off of received forms and conventions. This is suggested in the strange opera which Lurie ends up writing, in which conventional notions of musical decorum are discarded. Only such a radically reinvented form of art can speak to the vexed issue of political reconciliation. In explicitly correlating the question of political reconciliation to the role of literature itself, Disgrace adds a further dimension the literary representations of reconciliation which this book examines. Indeed, Coetzee presents literature as complicit in the very history of oppression which Disgrace attempts to transcend. Atonement explores issues of guilt, remorse and forgiveness against the backdrop of the Second World War, and in the context of the class society of early to mid-twentieth-century England. Its main character, Briony Tallis, feels intense guilt over her role, as a hyper-imaginative thirteen-year-old, in the accusations of rape against Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis family housekeeper. Briony’s strong sense of personal responsibility for Robbie’s fate is challenged by the novel itself. For example, Atonement dissects the role of forgiveness discourses in the upper-class milieu in which Briony grows up and by which she has been conditioned. McEwan’s novel suggests that forgiveness is withheld, especially by Briony’s mother, from the working-class yet upwardly mobile Robbie. Robbie himself, released from prison early in exchange for serving in the British Expeditionary Force, experiences a sense of guilt similar


A Literary History of Reconciliation

to Briony’s about the failure of the British military mission in France. Awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk, he has a fever dream that centres on his lack of personal agency within the war scene in which he is trapped, and on his inability to undo the massive suffering he has witnessed. In Atonement, human agency evaporates before the forces of history. As readers find out at the end of Part Three of the novel, Atonement is in fact written by Briony herself, as her attempt to atone for her youthful wrongdoings. Yet Briony’s attempt at atonement through literature is at best partially successful, and full absolution remains beyond her reach. Indeed, both Disgrace and Atonement evince a deep sense of pessimism about the possibility of reconciliation after the violence and injustice of the twentieth century, as well as about the possibility of representing such reconciliation in literature. The final chapter explores issues of forgiveness in the twenty-first-century ‘Gilead trilogy’ by the American writer Marilynne Robinson: Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014). Unlike Atonement and Disgrace, Robinson’s work is characterized by a strongly religious sensibility. Indeed, while those two books present Christian forgiveness discourses as inadequate or defunct, the Gilead novels are in part a sustained meditation on the question of how Christian notions of divine forgiveness can serve as a basis for interpersonal reconciliation, and for an interpersonal ethos of forgiveness, in both the intimate, familial and the politico-historical spheres. What is more, while this study repeatedly stresses the extent to which forgiveness discourses help to sustain conventional social hierarchies, Robinson’s fiction explores the question of how forgiveness, as a form of generous, unconditional, loving grace, can serve politically progressive ends. It is for this reason that Robinson’s work forms a logical end point for this study. Robinson’s novels connect the problems of intimate reconciliation, and the language of divine forgiveness, to the history of race relations in the United States. Reverend John Ames, the main character in Gilead, believes that divine forgiveness of sinful humanity entails an obligation for humans to forgive their wrongdoers. At the same time, he struggles to forgive Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of his friend Reverend Robert Boughton. Likewise, in Home, Jack’s father is ultimately incapable of extending forgiveness to Jack, even though he believes deeply in theological models of forgiveness. Unlike his father, Jack has become painfully aware of the history of race in America since he left his parental home, marrying the African American Della, with whom he has a child. Home dramatizes various tensions between theologies of forgiveness on the one hand and social and racial injustice on the other. Indeed, Robert Boughton’s



preoccupation with God’s forgiveness of sinful humanity renders him strangely indifferent to political, and especially racial injustice. In the figures of Ames and Boughton, both Gilead and Home dramatize a process of politico-religious forgetting: while for Ames’s mid-nineteenth-century grandfather, also a minister, Christian belief was centrally about the struggle against slavery and racial oppression, the generation of Ames and Boughton represents a form of Christianity that has retreated into a domestic sphere and effectively condones injustice. Lila, finally, approaches themes of forgiveness from the perspective of Lila Dahl, the younger wife of the ageing John Ames in Gilead. Before she marries Ames, she lives as a poverty-stricken drifter, rescued as a neglected child from her parental home by a woman named Doll. The figure of the marginalized, uneducated and traumatized Lila brings into further relief both the relation between interpersonal and divine forgiveness and the political dimension of reconciliation. Indeed, Lila suggests that full reconciliation – both politically and in the familial sphere – can take place only in an imagined afterlife, fantasized about on its closing pages by Lila herself. In Home, Glory Boughton fantasizes in similar terms about a future for her brother Jack and his mixed-race family. The imagined, hypothetical reconciliation in the Gilead novels is fundamentally political: the history of racial injustice and class inequality which they dramatize can be transcended only in an indeterminate, even literally other-worldly future. In this sense, these novels capture a final, recurring theme of this study: the notion that full forgiveness remains hypothetical, deferred even beyond the limits of literary representation, even as literature is also a prime locus of imagining such perfect reconciliation.


‘None Left but by Submission’: Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation

As we have seen in the introductory chapter, reconciliation and forgiveness have become key terms in modern-day notions of political conflict resolution. Within these models of political reconciliation, remorse felt by wrongdoers and truth-finding – that is to say, the full disclosure and acknowledgement of crimes – are recurring, if also contested, notions. Yet the notion that forgiveness in this modern confession and remorse-based sense has a role to play in political conflict resolution would have seemed alien to many early moderns.1 During and immediately after the great politico-religious conflicts of the early modern era, there do not seem to have been any attempts at forgiveness in this (proto-) modern, political sense. In the case of the Atlantic Isles, after the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1638–51), official policies after the Restoration were aimed at forgetting the events of the preceding years, rather than at the kind of truthfinding in which the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission engaged. In the Declaration of Breda (1660), Charles II famously ordained that ‘henceforth all notes of discord, separation and difference of parties be utterly abolished among all our subjects, whom we invite and conjure to a perfect union among themselves’.2 The Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660, moreover, declared that of all who had taken part in the Civil War, only those who had a leading role in the regicide of 1649 were to face the force of the law. Charles’s aim was to foster a collective form of oblivion – ‘to bury all Seeds of future Discords and remembrance of the former as well in His owne Breast as in the Breasts of His Subjects one towards another’.3 In the preamble to the General Act of Pardon and Oblivion to be passed by the Rump Parliament in February 1652, Oliver Cromwell had used similar language. For Cromwell, the aim of the Act was ‘that all Rancour and Evil Will occasioned by the late Differences may be buried in perpetual oblivion’.4


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Andrew Shifflet has analysed attempts at reconciliation between Charles I and his opponents in an earlier stage of the mid-seventeenth-century conflicts, during the years leading up to the regicide in 1649.5 While Shifflet repeatedly refers to this reconciliation as ‘forgiveness’, it seems clear that it bears little resemblance to forgiveness in its modern guise, with its emphasis on inner self-transformation (on the part of both the wrongdoer and the victim) and truth-finding. Rather, what Charles I offered to his opponents – provided they abandoned their campaign against him – was clemency: a ‘free and general pardon’ that would ensure ‘a perfect reconciliation between him and all his subjects’.6 This notion of reconciliation proceeded from a hierarchical view of society in which a monarch or ruler is in a position to grant clemency at his own discretion, much like the way in which Charles II, after the Restoration, would attempt to put to rest the conflicts of the preceding decades by means of a magnanimous royal gesture. Indeed, we can hear resonances of this also in Cromwell’s attempts to effect ‘a just Setling of the Peace and Freedom of this Commonwealth’ in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Wars.7 What separates these early modern conceptions of political reconciliation from modern-day notions is not only a lack of interest in uncovering traumatic experiences of the recent past but also an assumption that political ‘forgiveness’ is granted within a strongly hierarchical relationship. Inevitably, there is a deep disparity in power between those who grant oblivion and amnesty on the one hand, and those who receive it on the other. Ultimately, clemency served to confirm the asymmetrical power relationship between ruler and subject. For Charles, offering pardon was a way of asserting and enacting his status as divinely anointed monarch. In modern-day scenes of political apology, by contrast, it is the representatives of the state who ask for forgiveness on the state’s behalf. For example, consider the apologies offered by the Canadian government to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. In a 2008 statement expressing the government’s regret for the suffering caused by government-funded residential schools for native children, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that ‘the Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly’.8 Such apologies are informed by an assumption that the relationship between state and citizen has a degree of equality and (emotional) reciprocity that makes remorse by the state a conceptual possibility. Although monarchic power, in early modernity, was of course challenged during both the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Dutch Revolt, this did not mean that confessions of guilt and expressions of remorse by a monarch or his representatives were seen by any of the parties involved

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


as a possible enabler of political reconciliation. During the 1640s, Charles I’s opponents rejected his offers of clemency but they do not seem to have offered him anything like ‘forgiveness’ on the condition that he confess his guilt and express his remorse. This chapter examines the relation between reconciliation, hierarchy and power in early modern culture by turning to the representation of reconciliation and forgiveness in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674). Milton’s great epic is centrally preoccupied with reconciliation and forgiveness, and can usefully be seen as offering nothing less than a genesis of reconciliation: a narrative of how the need for reconciliation – both between God and humanity and between humans themselves – came into the world. The Fall, of course, renders the relation between God and humanity conflicted. It produces ‘On the part of Heav’n / Now alienated, distance and distaste, / Anger and just rebuke’ (9.8–10), and in Book 3 God insists on the need for propitiation and justice: Man disobeying, Disloyal breaks his fealtie, and sinns Against the high Supremacie of Heav’n, Affecting God-head, and so loosing all, To expiate his Treason hath naught left, But to destruction sacred and devote, He with his whole posteritie must dye, Dye hee or Justice must. (3.203–210)

Yet the ‘rigid satisfaction’ (3.212) which God demands here is rendered unnecessary by the Son’s self-sacrifice, which is also God’s own. As Stuart Curran notes, during the Son’s sojourn on earth, it is God himself who is ‘first divided, then in part reviled and executed before becoming reassimilated into a unified supreme being’.9 Paradise Lost ultimately celebrates the ‘unexampl’d love, / Love no where to be found less than Divine’ (3.410–11) that leads the supreme being to redeem fallen humanity. Indeed, the poem insists that humanity is forgiven in the first instance as a result of this freely given, unconditional and uniquely divine grace, rather than by its own initiatives. In addition to creating a need for divine forgiveness, the Fall also inaugurates conflict between humans and consequently the need for conflict resolution in the interpersonal sphere. The Genesis narrative hints at this with characteristic terseness when Adam blames Eve for his own disobedience: ‘The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’ (Gen. 3:12). In Paradise Lost, the discord between Adam and Eve is not only significantly


A Literary History of Reconciliation

expanded but their eventual reconciliation becomes central to the poem as a whole, which has often been seen as offering in part a ‘domestic’ epic, an epic drama of intimate human relations, rather than of battle and empire. As David Quint notes, the reconciliation between Adam and Eve is ‘the new heroic arena of Paradise Lost’.10 It might seem unlikely that the early modern monarchic models of reconciliation outlined above would be echoed in the work of such an antimonarchical writer as John Milton, especially given his focus on interpersonal reconciliation within the intimate, marital sphere. Indeed, the fiercely anti-royal dimension of Paradise Lost itself leads one to expect that it represents these issues in terms not associated with hierarchy, pardoning and oblivion. Yet, as this chapter argues, Milton’s imagining of reconciliation was structured precisely by the royalist discourses that he so vehemently rejected in other areas. As we will see, the reconciliation between Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost is very much informed by the discourses of royal clemency and pardoning discussed above: Adam pities Eve in her self-abasement, and his forgiveness of her is to a significant extent a function, as well as an affirmation, of the hierarchical relation between them. Adam and Eve reconcile because she humbles herself before him.11 Remorse, by contrast, is an emotion that they express and experience only before God, not to each other. Paradise Lost can therefore be seen as a confirmation of the early modern scenarios of reconciliation within the political sphere outlined above. Since Paradise Lost culminates both in God’s forgiveness of sinful humanity and in the resolved conflict between Adam and Eve, it invites readers to reflect on the conceptual relations between these two manifestations of reconciliation. Is the reconciliation between Adam and Eve modelled on divine forgiveness or are the two presented as radically different? I have already suggested that Paradise Lost presents heartfelt remorse as a central component only of divine forgiveness. In addition to this, the poem imagines a distinction, crucial to this study as a whole, between reconciliation as unconditional and motivated only by love on the one hand and as revolving around hierarchy and submission on the other. Milton’s epic associates the former with the divine forgiveness of sinful humans, the latter with reconciliation in the interpersonal sphere. Divine forgiveness, on this model, is apolitical in that it is untainted by power relations. Yet the poem also presents an alternative view, articulated primarily by Satan, of divine forgiveness as conditional upon human subjection to, and self-abasement before, God – and just as much premised on hierarchy, therefore, as the reconciliation between Adam and Eve. While Milton clearly does not ask his readers to share Satan’s

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


cynical understanding of divine forgiveness, the latter’s sense that forgiveness by God requires self-abasement cannot be dismissed completely. Satan’s insistence on the political dimension of forgiveness, moreover, is eminently applicable to reconciliation in the secular, interpersonal sphere, both in Paradise Lost and in literary works discussed in later chapters of this study. In this sense, Paradise Lost enacts a tension that is at the heart of the argument pursued in this book: can reconciliation ever be fully non-hierarchical, completely devoid of power relations? Is there such a thing as unconditional forgiveness, motivated purely by love and generosity? In spite of its insistence on divine love and compassion, Milton’s epic suggests that power relations insinuate themselves even into scenarios of divine forgiveness.

Divine and interpersonal reconciliation in Paradise Lost The reconciliation between Adam and Eve is one of the key events in Paradise Lost. While Book 9 leaves them locked in ‘mutual accusation’ (9.1189), blaming each other for the Fall, at the end of Book 10 the harmony between them has been restored and ‘both confes[s] / Humbly thir faults’ (10.1100–1101) to God, finding a form of equality in this shared confession before God. Scholars have noted that the reconciliation between them – and therefore their shared repentance before God – is made possible by Eve, who offers to take the full blame for the Fall in response to Adam’s bitter rejection of her.12 It is only after Eve’s offer that Adam’s anger abates, that his love for Eve is rekindled, and that he acknowledges his own responsibility for the Fall. As Philip Gallagher has argued, in granting Eve such an instrumental role in the reconciliation between herself and Adam, and therefore in their eventual redemption, Milton went against the grain of a long-established Christian tradition in which Eve is first and foremost cast as the cause of the Fall.13 Indeed, there is a scholarly tradition which sees Eve as becoming partially Christ-like in her offer to take upon herself Adam’s guilt too.14 In spite of Eve’s important role in initiating human repentance before God, the reconciliation between her and Adam also reconfirms – and is even made possible by – the hierarchical relationship between them. Indeed, Adam is moved by Eve’s words primarily because she humiliates herself before him. As Eve falls down at Adam’s feet, she describes herself as his ‘suppliant’, and ‘clasp[s his] knees’ (10.918–919). It is because of her submissiveness and her self-abasement that Adam pities Eve, and it is this pity which leads him to forgive her:


A Literary History of Reconciliation her lowlie plight, Immovable till peace obtain’d from fault Acknowledg’d and deplor’d, in Adam wraught Commiseration; soon his heart relented Towards her, his life so late and sole delight, Now at his feet submissive in distress, Creature so faire his reconcilement seeking[.] (10.937–943)

The phrase ‘lowlie plight’ is echoed in the opening line of Book 11 when Adam and Eve stand before God ‘in lowliest plight repentant’ (11.1). In addition, a few lines later the Son asks God to ‘bend thine eare / To supplication’ (11.30–31), just as Adam responds sympathetically to Eve’s entreaties as his suppliant. After the reconciliation, Eve claims to be ‘restor’d’ (10.970) by Adam, just as Christ is described as the ‘restorer of Mankind’ (10.646; for similar descriptions of Christ, see 1.5, 3.288–289 and 12.623). These echoes create a partial analogy between Eve’s self-abasement before Adam and their shared humility before God, and therefore between Adam and God in their role as forgiver.15 The relationships between Adam and Eve on the one hand and between Adam and Eve and God on the other are marked by a comparable hierarchy (Adam’s godlike superiority over Eve is, of course, also captured in the famous ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him’ [4.299]). Likewise, the ‘commiseration’ which Adam feels with the tearful Eve resonates with the compassion towards sinful humanity displayed by God and Christ. Christ is described as radiating ‘divine compassion’ (3.141), while both God and the Son are inclined ‘much more to pitie’ (3.401, 404) towards the fallen Adam and Eve than to wrath. If Eve becomes Christ-like in her selfsacrifice, it is Adam who comes to resemble God and Christ in his pity for Eve. In spite of the parallels between Adam and God in their role as forgiver, Adam is not in the first instance moved to forgiveness by Eve’s remorse. The importance of heartfelt remorse – ‘sorrow unfeign’d’ (10.1092; repeated at 10.1104) – is stressed only in relation to Adam and Eve’s collective repentance before God, which, as Adam says, is ‘sent from hearts contrite’ (10.1091). Indeed, Adam and Eve’s contrition before God is strongly inward in nature, both intensely felt and ineffable in its depth: they emit ‘sighs […] / Unutterable, which the Spirit of prayer / Inspir’d’ (11.5–7), and the Son ‘interpret[s]’ (11.33) their inarticulate prayers for God. Eve’s contrition before Adam, by contrast, revolves around visible, external signs of humility which signify that Eve has once again acknowledged Adam’s authority over her (Figure 2.1). As was noted above, she clasps Adam’s knees; in addition to this, her hair is ‘all disorderd’ (10.911), she is ‘at his feet submissive in distress’ (10.942), she weeps, and Adam is moved

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


by her female beauty. In this highly charged moment, he sees her intriguingly as a ‘creature so faire his reconcilement seeking’ (10.943). The reconciliation between Adam and Eve is in part a return to hierarchical gender relations.

Figure 2.1  Richard R.A. Westall (1765–1836), engraved by William Finden (1787– 1852), Adam and Eve after the Fall. 1822. Illustration to the 1816/1822 edition of Paradise Lost, London, published by John Sharpe. Victoria and Albert Museum. Bequeathed by Eustace F. Bosanquet.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

On one level, Eve’s supplication with Adam serves as Milton’s early modern, Christian appropriation of the supplications characteristic of classical epic. Consider, for example, the suppliants Chryses and Priam in The Iliad, Odysseus supplicating with Arete in the Odyssey, and Turnus begging Aeneas to save his life or return his body to his people at the end of the Aeneid.16 In classical epic, as in Paradise Lost, self-abasement and deference are central elements of supplication and are signalled in part by the suppliant’s clasping of the knee of his addressee, as in Priam’s supplication with Achilles in the final book of The Iliad: The majestic king of Troy slipped past the rest and kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees and kissed his hands. (24.559–561)

Since Eve’s supplication to the irate Adam occurs at what is arguably the narrative climax of Paradise Lost, and since Adam responds favourably, it invites comparison specifically to this supplication to Achilles (who is perhaps the first canonical embodiment of anger in Western literature). Achilles grants Priam’s request for Hector’s corpse in part because he feels pity, or ἔλεος (eleos), for Priam. This pity, in turn, stems from Achilles’s recognition of his own sorrow for Patroclus in the latter’s grief for his son. In addition, Priam reminds Achilles of his own father, whom he knows will never be reunited with him. As Kevin Crotty argues, the eleos which is at the heart of epic supplication revolves around the pitier’s recognition of himself in the suppliant, and a subsequent sense of obligation towards the suppliant. The suppliant, ‘in being pitied, becomes expressive of the pitier’s sense of himself as a kind of being – specifically, one who is partly constituted by his exposure to serious and unmerited harm. [T]he eleos that Achilles ultimately feels for Priam is the emotional expression of his insight that Priam’s wretched situation is ultimately his as well.’17 Likewise, in Paradise Lost, Eve’s offer to take the full blame for the Fall makes Adam aware of his own guilt in exposing Eve to Satan’s temptations: Eve was ‘To [him] committed and by [him] expos’d’ (10.957), and he is therefore co-responsible for her fall into sin. While in The Iliad Achilles recognizes his own suffering in that of Priam, in Paradise Lost Adam sees his own need for divine forgiveness in Eve. Supplication, in this classical sense, has the effect of momentarily suspending power relations, establishing a temporary shared humanity between suppliant and respondent. In this sense, the suppliant obtains a degree of power and agency precisely through his or her display of powerlessness. As Leah Whittington argues in her recent study Renaissance Suppliants, supplication can ‘creat[e]

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


possibilities for unexpected inversions of power and feeling’, and often serves strategic purposes for the suppliant.18 At the same time, supplication affirms the hierarchy between suppliant and supplicatee: supplication affords only the kind of limited power which the powerless can gain by putting their utter lack of power on display.19 Indeed, in addition to the classical echoes discussed in the previous paragraph, the self-abasement and supplication in the reconciliation between Adam and Eve is also modelled on a long tradition of intensely hierarchical rituals of royal pardoning and the granting of favours by monarchs (a tradition that was, in turn, indebted to classical paradigms of supplication). In such rituals, pardoning serves not to foster identification between king and suppliant but functions rather as a sign of the disparity in power between suppliant and subject – the suppliant prostrates himself before the monarch – and as an expression of the godlike status of the monarch: supplications to a king and to God are analogous. As Geoffrey Koziol observes in his study of royal pardoning in medieval France: Laymen and laywomen knew what it meant to prostrate themselves and beg God’s grace in prayer or his forgiveness in penance. They therefore understood that when they knelt to beg favor or forgiveness from a lord who claims to hold his authority ‘by the grace of God’, they were countenancing that claim by approaching him as they approached God.20

Similar petitions were addressed to knights or lesser lords, yet, Koziol argues, this did not detract from the divine status of royal power. Rather, it shows how widespread was the notion of the monarch as a quasi-divine figure, and reveals the extent to which divine royal power served as a template for a wide range of forms of authority. This notion of supplication as a self-abasing petition to God or to a divinely appointed monarch remained current in early modern England. As K. J. Kesselring points out: In the Tudor period, pardons most often served the interests of the Crown and the elite. In both symbolic and concrete ways, they increased the power and authority of the state, portraying the Crown as merciful and strengthening hierarchical structures. Pardons required supplication. Every supplication, at least outwardly, constituted an act of subjection. To obtain a pardon, offenders had to present themselves in ways that reaffirmed inequalities of power.21

The language of supplication to a monarch was also pervasive during the first decades after the Restoration. In 1661, a group of royalist army officers addressed


A Literary History of Reconciliation

a ‘most humble supplication’ in verse to Charles II, asking for modest financial provisions, in acknowledgement of their loyal service to Charles I, and for their unwavering dedication to the royalist cause during the Interregnum.22 Likewise, in 1660 George Willington of Bristol wrote a ‘most humble Supplication’ to Charles I in which he ‘upon [his] bended knees most humbly beseech[es]’ the king to defend the cause of true Christianity against ‘Anabaptists, Quakers, and Atheists’.23 In 1679, Henry Valentine defined supplication as a particular species of prayer to God, in which ‘we intreat of God that he would give us such blessings as we want, or continue and inlarge such blessings as we have received’.24 In imagining reconciliation between the two spouses in Paradise Lost, then, Milton drew in part on the traditional language of supplications to a monarch. Milton seems to have understood such reconciliation – even when it occurs in the most intimate, personal sphere – as a highly hierarchical, even politically inflected matter. That even a republican figure like Milton should have represented interpersonal reconciliation in terms strongly associated with royal authority is suggestive of the persistence in early modern culture of this reconciliation paradigm. (The same can be said for the General Act of Pardon and Oblivion, passed by Parliament in 1652, referred to earlier in this chapter.) This conceptual link between intimate reconciliation and political supplication finds an intriguing parallel in the account, published in 1694, of Milton’s own reconciliation with his first wife Mary Powell, by his nephew and biographer Edward Phillips. In 1642, approximately a month after she married Milton, Mary Powell, then seventeen years old, left him to return to her family. She unexpectedly returned in 1645 and Phillips describes their reunion as follows: There dwelt in the Lane of St. Martins Le Grand, which was hard by, a Relation of our Author’s, one Blackborough, whom it was known he often visited, and upon this occasion the visits were the more narrowly observd, and possibly there might be a Combination between both Parties; the Friends on both sides concentring in the same action, though on different behalfs. One time above the rest, he making his usual visit, the Wife was ready in another Room, and on a sudden he was surprised to see one whom he thought to have never seen more, making Submission and begging Pardon on her Knees before him; he might probably at first make some shew of aversion and rejection; but partly his own generous nature, more inclinable to Reconciliation than to perseverance in Anger and Revenge, and partly the strong intercession of Friends on both sides, soon brought him to an Act of Oblivion, and a firm League of Peace for the future[.]25

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


Annabel Patterson notes that ‘significantly, Phillips’ language for the reconciliation is itself political’.26 Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns note the allusion both to the Restoration settlement and to the reconciliation between Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost.27 Yet the implications of the political language and of the echoes from Paradise Lost have gone unexamined. While Milton’s perspective cannot be equated with that of Phillips, whose political sympathies were possibly more royalist, Phillips’s account makes explicit what remains implicit in Paradise Lost: the monarchical overtones of supplication.28 The phrase ‘Act of Oblivion’, of course, specifically aligns Milton with Charles II and turns Milton into a magnanimous monarch, merciful to his former enemies after a period of civil strife. The analogy between Milton and monarchic figures is strengthened by the fact that Mary begs her husband to ‘pardon’ him. In recounting this hierarchical reconciliation, Phillips also drew upon the language of Paradise Lost. His claim that Milton was ‘more inclinable to Reconciliation than to perseverance in Anger and Revenge’ echoes Milton’s own description, in Paradise Lost, of God as merciful towards fallen humanity: ‘thou didst not doome / So strictly, but much more to pitie encline’ (3.401–402; two lines later, Christ, too is characterized as ‘much more to pitie enclin’d’ [3.404]). In addition, the kneeling Mary Powell supplicates with her husband in a manner reminiscent of Eve’s supplication to Adam. As in Paradise Lost, inwardly felt remorse does not seem to be a crucial factor: what matters most is Mary’s outwardly (and even semi-publicly) visible submission to her husband. In both cases, reconciliation between spouses is made possible by a wife’s self-abasement before a husband who is godlike in both his authority over and his mercy towards her. Although Milton had come to reject the monarchy as a political principle, and in spite of the emphasis on the virtues of companionate marriage in Paradise Lost and the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, the hierarchical language of monarchy continued to provide a vocabulary for his representation of gender relations. This becomes especially evident in his understanding of reconciliation between an irate husband and his wife: Milton and Phillips share a conception of intimate reconciliation as modelled on royal pardoning and on the reconciliation between a divinely appointed monarch and his (rebellious) subjects. The limited role of remorse within Milton’s understanding of interpersonal conflict resolution can also fruitfully be read in the light of a different but related problem built into the idea of remorse – the notion that only God can verify the authenticity of inner human feelings such as remorse. If, in divine forgiveness, it is God who assesses the sincerity of a sinner’s remorse and repentance, in


A Literary History of Reconciliation

modern interhuman forgiveness discourses, a wrongdoer’s ‘repentance and the concomitant achievement of a new self are […] to be judged not by God but by the person who has been wronged’.29 Forgiveness in its modern guises remains, in David Konstan’s words, ‘depend[ent] on fathoming another person’s sincerity’.30 Yet within a strictly human sphere, assessing the wrongdoer’s moral transformation is inherently problematic. While God, in his omniscience, has untrammelled access to a sinner’s innermost thoughts and feelings, remorse ultimately remains unknowable to a fallible human forgiver. Remorse-based forgiveness therefore necessarily entails that the victim take a leap of faith to believe in a wrongdoer’s self-transformation. Yet in early modern culture, such a leap of faith in the innermost feelings of others was beset with theological – as well as political – problems. As Katherine Hodgkin points out, ‘hypocrisy was a significant preoccupation for early modern Protestants’.31 Hypocrisy could not only refer to virtuous pretence but could also, perhaps more disturbingly, be directed to the self: ‘one might mistakenly believe oneself elect while being in fact reprobate’.32 Even in the case of remorse before the omniscient supreme being, one could still delude oneself, and this made the knowability of remorse a deeply fraught issue. In addition, there was an intense concern in early modern culture with the broader problem of dissimulation and deceit, especially in the religious sphere.33 As Katharine Eisaman Maus argues: In late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England the sense of discrepancy between ‘inward disposition’ and ‘outward appearance’ seems unusually urgent and consequential for a very large number of people, who occupy virtually every position on the ideological spectrum.34

While Maus plausibly attributes this preoccupation with hypocrisy in part to the frequent changes in religious regime which England experienced during the sixteenth century, Paradise Lost suggests that it remained an issue at least until the late seventeenth century. The poem evinces a sustained distrust of outward display and ceremony in the religious sphere, claiming, for example, in its opening sentence, that the ‘Spirit’ resides in ‘th’ upright heart and pure’ (1.18) rather than in temples, while repeatedly associating Satan with royal ostentation, as at the beginning of Book 2: ‘High on a Throne of Royal State, which far / Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind […] / Satan exalted sat’ (2.1–4). Indeed, Milton explicitly associates Satan with hypocrisy. When, in Book 3, the disguised Satan asks Uriel for directions to the abode of newly created man, the Epic Voice informs us that the former’s true nature goes ‘unperceived’ by Uriel because only God can read the soul:

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


For neither Man nor Angel can discern Hypocrisie, the onely evil that walks Invisible, except to God alone[.] (3.682–84)

Even angels, then, are incapable of seeing through Satan’s performance. It is not just Satan, moreover, whose true feelings go undetected by man or angel: even though hypocrisy originates with Satan, the passage frames the impossibility of detecting hypocrisy as a general problem, inherent to creaturely existence. An awareness of this problem, voiced by Milton in this passage, only exacerbates it: we know as a general principle that we are unable to detect hypocrisy, but we never know when we are failing to detect it. In this sense, hypocrisy, to adopt a notorious phrase by the former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is an ‘unknown unknown’. The impossibility of reading dissimulation, a direct result of the Fall, has important consequences for Milton’s understanding of human interaction in general, as well as for the way he imagines interpersonal reconciliation. It robs inwardness of its relevance for human interaction, and makes it impossible to ground reconciliation in any heartfelt emotions experienced by the wrongdoer – or by the victim, for that matter. Instead, as we have seen, reconciliation becomes performative, made possible precisely by the outward ritual actions that Milton rejects in other areas of human experience. In an important sense, the prelapsarian world of Paradise Lost is also pre-ritualistic: Adam and Eve worship God solely by means of ‘adoration pure’ (4.737) – a form of direct communion with the divine that renders them able to dispense with ‘other Rites’ (4.736). While it is clear that Milton’s distrust of ritual also pertains to the postlapsarian world, the existence of conflict after the Fall and the postlapsarian impossibility of accurately gauging other people’s inmost feelings mean that interpersonal conflict resolution in Milton is necessarily dependent on ritual, with inner remorse pertaining only to scenarios of divine forgiveness. As we have seen, ritual, in turn, confirms or re-establishes hierarchy.

Satanic forgiveness Paradise Lost, then, seems to posit a dichotomy between divine and interpersonal reconciliation, with divine forgiveness pivoting on inwardly felt remorse, while interpersonal reconciliation revolves around (gender) hierarchy and ritual, outwardly visible self-abasement. Crucially, this dichotomy suggests that,


A Literary History of Reconciliation

for Milton, reconciliation in the interpersonal sphere is political, while God’s forgiveness of sinful human beings is to be understood in spiritual terms: it is untainted by power relations and made possible by God’s limitless love of sinful humanity, celebrated frequently in Milton’s epic poem. Milton seems to have understood divine, remorse-based forgiveness and interpersonal supplication as two distinctly different concepts. Yet Paradise Lost also offers an alternative reading of divine forgiveness as in fact deeply political in nature, and predicated on asymmetrical power relations between God and his creation. This is, of course, the view voiced by the Satan character. In his great soliloquy in Book 4, Satan acknowledges the deep despair into which he has plunged after his rebellion against God, briefly pondering the possibility of asking God’s forgiveness: ‘Is there no place / Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?’ (4.79–80). Yet he hastens to conclude in the very next line that there is ‘None left but by submission’ (4.81). As is also suggested by his conflation of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘pardoning’, Satan is convinced that he will obtain forgiveness only if he abases himself before God in a manner comparable to Eve’s self-humiliation before Adam. As he puts it in Book 1, divine forgiveness is available to him only if he is prepared ‘To bow and sue for grace / With suppliant knee’ (1.111– 12) before God. In his response to the elevation of the Son, Satan articulates a similar understanding of God, accusing the Son of having ‘to himself ingross’t / All Power’ (5.775–776), and protesting that the ‘Knee-tribute’ and ‘prostration vile’ (5.782) on which God insists will now have to be paid not only to God himself but also to ‘his image’ (5.784). What both God and the Son expect from the angels, Satan suggests, is a permanent form of abject supplication, in which the ‘supple knee’ (5.787) is forever bent. During the debate in Pandemonium, Mammon echoes Satan’s soliloquy in Book 4, arguing that God will forgive the fallen angels only if they once again subject themselves to Him. Mammon even reads divine grace, which the Son later insists ‘Comes unprevented, unimplor’d, unsought’ (3.231), in thoroughly politicized, hierarchical terms. God, he claims, will offer grace only on the condition that the fallen angels once again subject themselves to him: Suppose he should relent And publish Grace to all, on promise made Of new Subjection; with what eyes could we Stand in his presence humble, and receive Strict Laws impos’d, to celebrate his Throne With warbl’d Hymns, and to his Godhead sing Forc’t Halleluiah’s; while he Lordly sits

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


Our envied Sovran, and his Altar breathes Ambrosial Odours and Ambrosial Flowers, Our servile offerings. (2.237–246)

Satan and Mammon, then, construe the nature of divine forgiveness entirely in terms of power hierarchies. Both would have agreed wholeheartedly with the observation, in the recent Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, that supplication is ‘distasteful to the supplicant because it is personally demeaning’.35 We might add that, for Satan, this includes supplication with God. This is patently not a view which readers of the poem are invited to identify with. Milton instead asks us insistently to see divine forgiveness as rooted first and foremost in the Son’s ‘Love without end, and without measure Grace’ (3.142). Paradise Lost explicitly presents such unlimited, unconditional love as unique to God, and therefore unique to divine forgiveness. Yet Satan is not entirely mistaken in ascribing an element of subjection to divine forgiveness. We have seen that early modern rituals of royal pardoning frame the monarch as a divine figure, with supplications to a monarch cast as analogous to supplications with God. This analogy is not absent from Paradise Lost. This is suggested, for example, when Adam and Eve ‘pardon beg’d’ (10.1101) from God, and when Adam decides that he and Eve should ‘prostrate fall’ (10.1087) before God, both at the end of Book 10; and when the Son asks God to ‘bend thine eare / To [Adam and Eve’s] supplication’ (11.30–31) at the beginning of Book 11. The language of hierarchical supplication and pardoning, then, also insinuates itself, albeit perhaps fleetingly, into Miltonic scenarios of divine forgiveness. As we have seen in the introductory chapter, this hierarchical dimension of divine forgiveness is also underlined by Martha Nussbaum in her recent book on Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. She argues that on one dominant theological model, divine forgiveness is understood as fundamentally transactional – conditional upon contrition and self-abasement on the part of sinful humanity. This is also the view of divine forgiveness, it seems, espoused by Satan (although Satan also believes that he will not be forgiven even if he humiliates himself before God). As Leah Whittington shows, Milton also subverts this hierarchical understanding of supplication in the figure of Christ. In Book 3, God announces that humanity is doomed unless there is a redeemer in heaven willing to take on the penalty for the Fall. Christ famously responds with the following words: Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;


A Literary History of Reconciliation Account mee man; I for his sake will leave Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee Freely put off, and for him lastly dye Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage[.] (3.236–41)

In a moment that foreshadows Eve’s offer to take on the full consequences of the Fall, Christ consents to humiliate himself, exchanging his divinity for a human state. Christ’s self-humiliation does not entail subjection, however, but forms the very basis of his exaltation by God. As God informs the Son in response to his voluntary self-sacrifice, ‘thy Humiliation shall exalt / With thee thy Manhood also to this Throne’ (3.313–314). Christ’s spontaneous selfhumiliation is motivated by ‘immortal love / To mortal men’ (3.267–68), as well as by a concomitant sense of ‘divine compassion’ (3.141) with fallen humanity. As Whittington points out, Christ, at this pivotal moment in Paradise Lost, acts both as suppliant and as respondent: ‘The union of God and man in the Son points to the collapse of the distinction between suppliant and supplicatee; as God, the Son hears petitions; as man, he makes them.’36 In this way, Christ is able to sidestep the hierarchical politics inherent in supplication, dissolving the asymmetrical power relation that normally pertains between suppliant and supplicatee. It is this aspect of the divine forgiveness in Paradise Lost to which Satan is oblivious. Satan’s error lies in the assumption that the ubiquity of power relations in the secular, creaturely sphere can be transferred unproblematically to the relation between God and creation, and that divine forgiveness is only a matter of creaturely self-abasement before God. Paradise Lost also invites us to see supplication as ultimately leading, paradoxically, to a form of elevation: if the Son is exalted by God, Adam likewise lifts Eve up from her suppliant’s posture: ‘As one disarm’d, his anger all he lost, / And thus with peaceful words uprais’d her soon’ (10.945–46). Yet this does not mean that the language of power hierarchies is altogether absent from Miltonic scenarios of divine forgiveness, or that this language is ultimately fully neutralized by Christ’s loving self-sacrifice, by Adam’s raising up of Eve after her supplication with him, or by the poem’s suggestion that submission to a monarch is conceptually different from submission to one’s creator. Indeed, as Mandy Green notes, ‘Eve’s initiative in approaching Adam submissively […] enable[s] him to understand how God may likewise soften when humbly approached with prayers and repentance’: Eve’s self-abasement before her husband in part provides a template for their shared self-abasement before God.37

Paradise Lost and the Genesis of Reconciliation


Moreover, even if we accept the idea that divine forgiveness is driven only by divine love, the dissolution of the power relation between suppliant and supplicatee seems possible only in the heavenly sphere: it is only in the figure of Christ that the hierarchy between these two parties can be transcended. Satan’s insistence on the reality of power and hierarchy is all too justified, in other words, where reconciliation between human beings is concerned – not just in Paradise Lost itself, but also in literary works of later periods. In this sense, the approach to the literary history of reconciliation which this book adopts can be characterized in part as ‘Satanic’: it insists that interpersonal reconciliation is a deeply political affair, and that scenes of forgiveness often serve to legitimize and sustain existing gender and class hierarchies, even as works of literature also attempt to imagine non-hierarchical, non-transactional forms of reconciliation. The next chapter examines the tension between the idea that forgiveness revolves around hierarchy and power on the one hand, and the idea of forgiveness as a form of unconditional love and generosity on the other, in the drama of William Shakespeare.


‘Ask Her Forgiveness?’ Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare

Reconciliation is an insistent theme throughout Shakespeare’s dramatic canon. It is often associated especially with the four late plays and, to a lesser degree, with the comedies, yet it is also central to the ‘problem plays’ The Merchant of Venice (1596–97) and Measure for Measure (1603–04) and to a tragedy such as King Lear (1605–06) while the history plays and the Roman plays, too, contain important scenes of reconciliation (successful or not), for example between Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar (1599) and between Hal and Henry IV in Henry IV Part 2 (1598).1 This chapter argues that Shakespeare was fascinated by the relations between reconciliation, power and grace that also form a main theme of this study. His plays frequently examine the ways in which scenes of reconciliation work to sustain or challenge power relations and hierarchies between generations, genders and social classes, or between insiders and outsiders. As we will see, moreover, Shakespeare imagines reconciliation in deeply religious terms, with characters frequently evoking the language of divine, remorse-driven forgiveness in their reconciliation with other human beings. On the one hand, such religious terminology can serve to consolidate existing power relations, by recasting the political in spiritual terms – an example is Duke Vincentio’s use of forgiveness as a form of political pardoning in Measure for Measure. Reconciliation, in this form, always implies a form of subjection. Yet the idea that reconciliation is a religious category also brings with it the possibility that it can be an act of love and generosity, entailing precisely a dissolution of power relations. A prime example of this in Shakespeare is Cordelia’s forgiveness of her father, as well as Lear’s own requests for forgiveness from Cordelia. Yet while Shakespeare is clearly mesmerized by this alternative reading of reconciliation, it is present in his plays only as a possibility, tantalizingly glimpsed but not fully realized – or, in the case of King Lear, as a brief, utopian moment in an otherwise tragic landscape. In this sense, Shakespearean scenes of reconciliation also form


A Literary History of Reconciliation

an apt illustration of the idea, central to this book, that forgiveness hovers on the edge of literary representation, and therefore marks its limits. This chapter begins with a discussion of Measure for Measure, in which, I argue, the language of forgiveness serves almost exclusively as an instrument of state power. It then presents an analysis of King Lear, which I see as a play centrally concerned with the nature of forgiveness, and with the question of whether, to borrow Derrida’s phrase, ‘forgiveness without power’ is possible. This question is subsequently examined in a reading of The Winter’s Tale (1609–10) and The Tempest (1610–11), which also turns more specifically to the relation between reconciliation and the limits of literary representation. As we will see, reconciliation, in these two plays, is never quite realized, always deferred, even beyond the time of the play themselves, and ultimately transferred to the audience.

Reconciliation and power in Measure for Measure A forgiveness term that echoes through Measure for Measure is ‘grace’. In a quipping exchange with one of the anonymous gentlemen in Act 1, Scene 2, Lucio says that ‘Grace is grace, despite of all / controversy’ (1.2.24–25). His words pun on ‘grace’ in the sense of a prayer of thanks before a meal, and as the theological concept on which hinged many of the religious controversies of the period: Is salvation purely a matter of grace, ‘bestowed freely [by God] and without regard to merit’, or do human works also contribute to it?2 Lucio’s pun works, of course, by dint of the fact that grace is not grace, open to wordplay, and in Measure for Measure, the meaning of the term differs from scene to scene. When Angelo laments that ‘Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, / Nothing goes right’ (4.4.34–35), ‘grace’ refers to the divinely inspired virtue to which he had so far laid claim. When the contrite Angelo, his sins exposed, claims that ‘Immediate sentence, then, and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg’ (5.1.370–71), ‘grace’ is the coup de grâce he wants to be administered to him as a manifestation of the power which Duke Vincentio now holds over him. Angelo underlines this link between grace and power when he addresses Duke Vincentio as ‘your Grace’ (5.1.366) a few lines earlier. These shifting meanings of ‘grace’ – unmerited salvation; personal virtue; a form of aristocratic address; a death sentence – point to the sustained reflection in Measure for Measure on the nature of forgiveness, and especially on the relation between forgiveness and political power. That forgiveness serves as an instrument of such power becomes clear especially in the play’s closing scene,

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


when Duke Vincentio pardons Angelo, Lucio, Barnardine and Isabella alike, finding ‘an apt remission’ – a readiness to forgive – ‘in myself ’ ( The comic ending of the play effectively consists in Vincentio’s last-minute acts of forgiveness. For example, a few lines before his closing monologue, Vincentio claims to ‘forgive’ Lucio’s ‘slanders’ (5.1.516), as well as revoking his death sentence. As Alex Schulman comments sardonically, the series of pardons issued by Vincentio at the close of the play ‘remains a happier conclusion […] than [the] mass execution’ in which Measure for Measure could also in theory have culminated.3 Yet Vincentio’s ‘thy slanders I forgive’ also captures the political role and meaning of pardoning in the play: it underscores both a ruler’s mercy and his discretion in meting out punishment, and therefore serves as a supreme enactment of his power. While, in the play’s opening scene, Vincentio had bestowed the power both to punish and to pardon on Angelo – ‘Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart’ (1.1.44–45) – he now decisively claims that prerogative for himself. The duke’s words of forgiveness are in fact accompanied by reminders of his power to punish. When Lucio complains that his enforced marriage to a prostitute he has made pregnant is equivalent to the ‘pressing to death, whipping, and hanging’ (5.1.518–19) which he has just narrowly escaped, Vincentio counters that ‘Slandering a prince deserves it’ (5.1.520). Almost in one and the same breath, Vincentio pardons Lucio, significantly mitigating his punishment, and reminds him that what he truly deserves, and what the duke could easily and justly have inflicted on him, is a death sentence. Indeed, a few lines earlier, he qualifies his forgiving mood by announcing that he ‘cannot pardon’ (5.1.496) Lucio’s slanders, suggesting in this way that his acts of pardoning are arbitrary and revocable. First, Vincentio announces that Lucio presents an exception to his forgivingness, sentencing him to be ‘whipp’d and hang’d’ (5.1.510). He then pardons him anyway, but not without reiterating that the rightful punishment for slander is death. In addition, Vincentio’s acts of pardoning make no meaningful distinction between Isabella, Lucio and Claudio: all fall under the sway of his ‘apt remission’. Although Isabella is innocent of any crime, when she finds out that the friar was in fact the duke in disguise, she asks his ‘pardon’ for having ‘employ’d and pain’d / Your unknown sovereignty’, identifying herself as the duke’s ‘vassal’ (5.1.383–84). Her request is readily granted: ‘You are pardon’d, Isabel’ (5.1.384). The incoherence of Vincentio’s acts of forgiveness is also the source of their political power: he simultaneously offers and withholds forgiveness, both remits and metes out punishment, in this way keeping his subjects in the state


A Literary History of Reconciliation

of anxiety and uncertainty that has been the principal key to his power over them throughout the play. From Act 2 onwards, he undertakes a sustained effort to convince Juliet, Isabella and Claudio himself that Claudio’s execution is inevitable, or has already taken place. He counsels Claudio to ‘Be absolute for death’ (3.1.5) and deliberately misinforms Isabella of her brother’s fate: But I will keep her ignorant of her good, To make her heavenly comforts of despair When it is least expected. (4.3.99–101)

In this way, the duke maximizes the effect of the revelations in the play’s closing scene: the strategic postponement of pardoning further underscores its symbolic force. Mercy comes when it is no longer expected – when a convict has resigned himself to death – and therefore seems all the more wondrous.4 To be sure, the duke’s efforts to shape his subjects’ emotions are not uniformly successful. Barnardine most famously resists the duke’s attempts to make him confess and repent before being executed. He declines to be executed ‘this day’ (4.3.56), and refuses to feel any of the anxieties which Vincentio instils in other characters, ‘apprehend[ing] death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep’ (4.2.142–43). As such, he marks an aporia in the duke’s power. The same is true for Juliet, who refuses to feel unqualified remorse about her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The duke is determined to instil a ‘sound’ (2.3.22) form of contrition in her – genuine and not ‘hollowly put on’ (2.3.23). He warns her that true contrition involves sorrow about sin itself, and not about its consequences for herself. The latter ‘sorrow’, he explains, ‘is always toward ourselves, not heaven’ (2.3.32).5 Yet Juliet denies that she feels shame about her pregnancy, while her repentance is circumscribed, her joy over her pregnancy more important: ‘I do repent me as it is an evil, / And take the shame with joy’ (2.3.35–36). Frustrated by Juliet’s defiance, the duke informs her of Claudio’s impending execution and tells her he is on his way to offer him spiritual counselling. In this way, he finally succeeds in provoking anxiety in her: ‘Must die to-morrow! O injurious love, / That respites me a life’ (2.3.40–41). If the duke’s attempts to engender remorse in Juliet are largely futile, therefore, he is eminently capable of driving her to despair at Claudio’s fate – a despair which, like Isabella’s, he will eventually lift ‘when it is least expected’. In doing so, he deploys Juliet’s despair as an instrument in his successful attempt to reclaim and consolidate the power which, as he explains to Friar Thomas in Act 1, Scene 3, had slipped away from him: ‘our decrees, / Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead’ (1.3.27–28). Even Barnardine, in spite of his refusal to show any kind of contrition at all, is eventually pardoned by the duke:

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


Thou’rt condemned; But, for those earthly faults, I quit them all, And pray thee take this mercy to provide For better times to come. (5.1.479–82)

Barnardine may seem to be rewarded for his defiance, yet in pardoning him, Vincentio in fact manages to assert a form of power over the very character who seemed to elude his control. Barnardine now owes the duke a debt of gratitude, and he is exhorted by his pardoner to seek moral self-betterment, and therefore to repent his former crimes. The pardons issued by the duke follow upon a series of supplications by Mariana and Isabella. Instructed by Friar Peter, Isabella kneels before Vincentio at the beginning of the closing scene to ‘wring redress’ (5.1.33) from him for Angelo’s wrongful actions. Later in the scene, Mariana, in claiming she is Angelo’s wife, likewise kneels before the duke, and asks his permission to ‘raise me from my knees’ (5.1.230). The climactic supplications occur when both Mariana and Isabella beg for Angelo’s life. While Mariana is the first to do so, she asks Isabella to ‘Lend me your knees’ (5.1.428), a distressing request which Isabella reluctantly grants, even as the duke reminds her that Angelo ‘dies for Claudio’s death’ (5.1.440). Vincentio replies that ‘Your suit’s unprofitable’ (5.1.452), delaying the pardoning of Angelo for as long as possible. These supplications serve as ritual confirmations of Duke Vincentio’s power, and he uses them to maximum effect, responding favourably only at the very end. Yet hierarchical forgiveness in Measure for Measure aims to be more than a public reassertion of the asymmetrical power relation between ruler and ruled. The duke pardons his subjects only after he has succeeded in moulding their emotional lives: after they have become convinced that they themselves or their loved ones are condemned to die, or after they have experienced profound remorse and have become convinced that both their crimes and their inner lives are utterly exposed to his gaze. The latter is especially true for Angelo, whose remorse effectively becomes synonymous with this sense of exposure. In her supplication with the duke, Isabella defends Angelo on the grounds that he has been prevented from acting on his lustful intentions, and that his crime is therefore a purely mental one: ‘Thoughts are no subjects; / Intents, but merely thoughts’ (5.1.450–51). Her claim that thoughts are not subject to state power is not only internally incoherent but also belied by Angelo’s own response when he finds out, earlier in the scene, that the duke has known about his crime all along:


A Literary History of Reconciliation O my dread lord, I should be guiltier than my guiltiness To think I can be undiscernible, When I perceive your Grace, like power divine, Hath looked upon my passes. (5.1.363–67)

For Angelo, to think that his crimes could escape the duke’s gaze would be a crime in itself, and would therefore add to his guilt. Indeed, since Angelo has been prevented, by means of the bed-trick, from actually sleeping with Isabella, his crime now effectively consists in his intention to do so, and the duke therefore sees into Angelo’s deepest and most secret desires. Angelo’s characterization of the duke as ‘power divine’ is fitting not only because of the panoptic vision he attributes to him but also in view of the contrition which the duke manages to instil in Angelo. The latter expresses his deep inner remorse at having disappointed Escalus, for example: ‘I am sorry that such sorrow I procure, / And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart / That I crave death more willingly than mercy’ (5.1.471–73). Since it serves as a prerequisite for Angelo’s pardoning, this remorse is also at the heart of one of the key issues examined in the play: What happens if notions of divine forgiveness, with remorse as a pivotal component, are applied to interpersonal reconciliation scenarios, especially in the political sphere? While royal pardoning, as we have seen in the previous chapter, is modelled on divine forgiveness in that it presupposes a godlike ability to cancel out a crime, it is unlike divine forgiveness in that it is not necessarily predicated on remorse, or on a gauging of a subject’s inner state. Royal pardoning is gratuitous, even in part synonymous with oblivion, while remorse is a matter between sinful humans and God. Similarly, in Paradise Lost, pardoning is made possible not so much by Eve’s inner remorse, but rather by her outwardly visible self-abasement as a supplicant. Duke Vincentio, by contrast, is not content with such outward reassertions of hierarchy. Rather, he seeks to engender an inner moral transformation in his subjects akin to the remorse before God felt by sinful humans. It is in this sense that he can be said to apply divine forms of forgiveness to the human realm in a manner that seems unusual in early modern culture. Such remorse before a ruler entails a form of political power that is more profound than the royal power embodied, for example, by Charles II’s Act of Oblivion, in that it extends the scope of that power into the subject’s mental sphere.6 If, as we have seen, the duke is not always successful in engendering remorse in his subjects, profound and sustained anxiety offers an effective alternative.

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


The problem explored in Measure for Measure is that this form of power requires untrammelled, godlike access to the inner lives of subjects, and unlimited knowledge of their actions. This is made possible, of course, by the duke’s disguise as a friar, and he continues to draw on the spiritual power which his disguise accords him even after he has resumed his identity as duke. When he instructs Angelo to love Mariana, he reassures him that ‘I have confess’d her, and I know her virtue’ (5.1.523). The duke presents his intimate knowledge of Mariana’s spiritual state as a compelling reason why Angelo should overcome any reservations about marrying her. Moreover, the play suggests that the form of power which the duke comes to wield renders the concept of remorse itself problematic. Remorse no longer emerges within the non-political relationship between divine creator and sinful human beings but is occasioned by a subject’s awareness of a ruler’s power over him: Angelo feels remorse only when he has become convinced that none of his actions will go undetected by the duke’s gaze. In this sense, contrition becomes akin to its lesser cousin, the attrition which the duke warns Juliet against: a sorrow not in the first instance about sin itself but the consequences of sin. Similarly, unlike the Christian God, who forgives out of unconditional love of sinful humanity, Duke Vincentio employs remorse not only as an instrument of political power but ultimately seems to use it also in the service of a more personal agenda whose logic remains enigmatic and which strains the play’s comic ending almost to breaking point. His famous out-of-the-blue marriage proposal to Isabella, met by her with silence, presents perhaps the clearest example of this. Modern directors have perhaps been especially eager to stage this as a problematic and even sinister moment, at which Isabella is subjected once more to a ruler’s sexual desires, but the tensions and ambivalence built into it are inescapable.7 Measure for Measure also offers an alternative form of mercy, represented by Isabella, and akin to the idea, encountered in Chapter 1, that humans should forgive each other because they are in need of forgiveness from God. When, in Act 2, Scene 2, Isabella pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life, she asks him to model his own judicial practice on divine mercy: How would you be If He, which is the top of judgment, should But judge you as you are? O, think on that, And mercy then will breathe within your lips, Like man new made. (2.2.75–79)

Later in the same scene, Isabella urges Angelo to examine his own conscience to see if he harbours sins similar to Claudio’s: ‘ask your heart what it doth


A Literary History of Reconciliation

know  / That’s like my brother’s fault’ (2.2.138–39). The concept of mercy proposed here is similar to the pardons eventually granted by Duke Vincentio in that it presents divine clemency as a template for human justice, yet it also differs radically from them in that it asks the ruler to acknowledge his own guilt before God. Indeed, this robs the ruler of his divine status and turns him into a fallible, sinful human being. The pardons granted by Duke Vincentio, by contrast, effectively make him godlike in his power to shape his subject’s most private emotions. In Measure for Measure Isabella’s more egalitarian mercy remains only a fleeting possibility and plays no role in the play’s denouement. Yet if pardoning by a godlike ruler is ultimately the only form of forgiveness available in Measure for Measure, the play also voices deep misgivings about the notion that divine mercy can serve as a model for political sovereignty. Indeed, as Sarah Beckwith notes, it is apparent what the human costs are in the terrible exposure and humiliation of [Vincentio’s] subjects. Here the secrets of the confessional are not so much protected as used as part of the state apparatus. And it is confession itself that has collapsed entirely into the coercive external apparatus of the state.8

Forgiveness, hierarchy and grace in King Lear The closing scene of King Lear contains a remarkable reconciliation between the two sons of Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar. After he has been defeated by Edgar in a duel, Edmund extends forgiveness to his brother, and the latter responds in kind: Edmund But what art thou That hast this fortune on me? If thou’rt noble, I do forgive thee. Edgar Let’s exchange charity: I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund; If more, the more thou’st wronged me. My name is Edgar and thy father’s son. […] Edmund Thou’st spoken right[.] (5.3.162–171)

In The Wheel of Fire, G. Wilson Knight approvingly characterizes Edmund as ‘nobly repentant at the last’, and his reconciliation with Edgar as an instance of ‘forgiving chivalry’.9 The two phrases capture, respectively, the importance which King Lear attaches to repentance, however belated, for evil deeds, and

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


the extent to which forgiveness in the play is bound up with issues of hierarchy and power. As audience, we are invited to see Edmund as eligible for forgiveness because he has a last-minute change of heart. He admits the wrongs he has committed, expresses remorse – ‘This speech of yours hath moved me’ (5.3.198) – and wishes to atone for his crimes by attempting to prevent the murder of Cordelia: ‘Some good I mean to do’ (5.3.241). At the same time, Edmund is willing to forgive Edgar – whom he has not yet recognized at this point – on the condition that he is of noble birth. When Edgar offers to exchange forgiveness with his brother, he does not reject this link between forgiveness and social rank, but adds that he is ‘no less in blood’, and that he has been wronged by Edmund especially in his capacity as the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. He speaks as a chivalrous victor, moreover, who has just defeated Edmund in single combat and extends mercy to the opponent who lies vanquished at his feet.10 The reconciliation between Edmund and Edgar marks the last moment at which forgiveness is evoked in King Lear. The most prominent earlier forgiveness scenes revolve around Lear himself and his daughters. The term ‘forgiveness’ occurs for the first time in Act 2, Scene 2, when Regan defends Goneril against Lear’s bitter complaints about the latter’s ‘sharp-toothed unkindness’ (2.2.327) and suggests that Lear make amends with her: Regan O, sir, you are old: Nature in you stands on the very verge Of her confine. You should be ruled and led By some discretion, that discerns your state Better than you yourself. Therefore I pray you That to our sister you do make return; Say you have wronged her, sir. Lear Ask her forgiveness? Do you but mark how this becomes the house? [Kneels] Dear daughter, I confess that I am old; Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food. Regan Good sir, no more. These are unsightly tricks. Return you to my sister. (2.2.338–349) As his sarcastic confession makes clear, Lear sees Regan’s request as a humiliation. Far from effecting any form of reconciliation, it only confirms the inversion of traditional hierarchies which she and Goneril have brought


A Literary History of Reconciliation

about. Lear’s kneeling before his daughter evokes early modern understandings of forgiveness, discussed in the previous chapter, as requiring supplication by the party seeking forgiveness. While supplications were conventionally made to a monarch, and served as a confirmation of royal power, here it is Lear who supplicates with Goneril. The crime for which he claims to seek forgiveness is his old age, and he suggests it is absurd for a royal father to beg forgiveness from his daughters – an affront to the patriarchal ‘house’ over which he should preside, and therefore to his understanding of the social order more broadly. The omission of Regan’s ‘sir’, in line 344, from the Folio version of the play turns Regan’s request to her father into a more overt instruction and lends a degree of support to Lear’s response. While she initially addresses Lear as ‘your highness’ (2.2.320), she now does away with such formalities and takes control, agitated as she is by what she sees as Lear’s unreasonable accusations against Goneril.11 Yet it is primarily Lear himself who, as a (former) monarch, assumes that asking for forgiveness is a necessarily hierarchical affair, and that it therefore requires an unnatural, even effeminizing self-abasement on his part, much like Eve’s supplication with Adam in Paradise Lost. Regan’s complaint that ‘these are unsightly tricks’ expresses in part her irritation with this. She is not asking Lear to ‘beg’; rather, it is Regan herself who ‘prays’ her father to admit that he has wronged Goneril. Yet to Lear’s mind, such an admission of wrong signifies an utter loss of patriarchal status. Both the relatively successful reconciliation between Edmund and Edgar and the more fraught one between Lear and Goneril revolve around hierarchy, power and social status. Edmund and Edgar willingly exchange forgiveness because they are both of noble rank. Conversely, Lear is reluctant to ask for forgiveness from his daughter because this would entail an inversion of gender and intergenerational hierarchies. A radically different form of forgiveness occurs when Lear and Cordelia are reunited in Act 4, Scene 7 – perhaps the most celebrated reconciliation scene in Shakespeare. Their reconciliation is especially illuminating within the larger argument of this book in that Cordelia’s forgiveness of her father is unlike the modern-day, remorse-based forgiveness scenarios outlined in Chapter 1, and more akin to Derrida’s notion of ‘pure’ forgiveness as a form of ‘madness’. Cordelia’s forgiveness of Lear is not a response to remorse, or any other gesture, on his part. Far from suggesting a causal relation between the sense of guilt which Lear expresses and her forgiveness of his deeds, she obliterates her father’s wrongdoings and effectively denies that they have occurred, in a gesture reminiscent of divine forgiveness as a radical erasure of sin:

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


Lear Be your tears wet? Yes, faith; I pray weep not. If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me, for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not. Cordelia No cause, no cause. (4.7.71–75)

The moment is in part an inversion of the parable of the Prodigal Son: it is the child who extends unconditional, loving forgiveness to the father, rather than vice versa.12 A few lines later Lear asks Cordelia to ‘forget and forgive; I am old and foolish’ (4.7.83–84), yet this is precisely what she has already done at ‘No cause, no cause’. Indeed, she effectively already forgives her father before they are reunited, when, three scenes earlier, she prays to the ‘blest secrets’ and ‘unpublished virtues of the earth’ (4.4.15–16) to alleviate Lear’s distress. The absence of a grammatical subject and finite verb from Cordelia’s ‘no cause’ underlines her extraordinary generosity: her forgiveness of Lear exists outside ordinary time and cannot even be understood as an ‘action’ in the customary sense of that word, with Cordelia as its agent, or even Lear as its object. Rather, it is to be construed as a mysterious, unconditional gift – a form of radical forgiveness that is possible precisely because, in Derridean terms, it forgives the unforgivable. Cordelia’s ‘no cause’, therefore, refers both to her erasure of a possible ‘cause’ against Lear and to the causelessness of her own forgiveness. As John Hughes argues, in forgiving her father, Cordelia makes a ‘risky and costly’ first move that places her ‘in a position painfully vulnerable to rejection’.13 Yet it is precisely for this reason that such a radical first step captures ‘what it means to love those who have not shown love’.14 Indeed, Lear’s egregious wronging of Cordelia can be forgiven only through such an act of grace ‘without cause’; no amount of remorse or other form of recompense can render it intrinsically forgivable.15 If Cordelia’s forgiveness is a response to Lear’s condition at all, it is primarily to his suffering and physical vulnerability – a vulnerability, moreover, that is not uniquely his, but shared by all human beings, and even by animals: Was this a face To be opposed against the warring winds? […] Mine enemy’s dog


A Literary History of Reconciliation Though he had bit me should have stood that night Against my fire; and wast thou fain, poor father, To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn In short and musty straw? Alack, alack! (4.7.31–40)

It is also this suffering of vulnerable fellow human beings to which Lear himself has become alert in the cause of the play, with Poor Tom as its central embodiment. Indeed, Lear’s newly acquired ability to recognize Poor Tom, exposed to the elements, as an embodiment of ‘unaccommodated man’ (3.4.106) is at the heart of his moral transformation. An audience, therefore, may well construe Cordelia’s forgiveness of Lear as made possible in part by Lear’s newly acquired sensitivity to the pain of others, yet Cordelia herself does not posit a correlation between the two. The reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia contrasts strikingly with that between Lear and Goneril, in that Lear willingly acknowledges only that he has wronged Cordelia. In this sense, the scene recalls the moment when Gloucester, at the end of Act 3, realizes that he has been misled by Edmund, and has wronged Edgar: ‘O my follies! Then Edgar was abused? / Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him!’ (3.7.90–91). In addition to this, Lear is prepared to humiliate himself before Cordelia in precisely the gesture of supplication which he rejects in his exchange with Goneril. Cordelia sees his kneeling as unbecoming, in this way keeping Lear’s status as patriarch relatively intact: O look upon me, sir, And hold your hands in benediction o’er me! [She restrains him as he tries to kneel.] No, sir, you must not kneel. (4.7.57–59)

Yet Lear is tenacious in his wish to supplicate with Cordelia, as becomes clear from his fantasy of re-enacting it in an unending series of rituals: Come, let’s away to prison; We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage. When thou dost ask me blessing I’ll kneel down And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too – Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out – And take upon’s the mystery of things As if we were God’s spies. (5.3.8–17)

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


If this moment echoes Lear’s kneeling down in front of Regan in Act 2, Scene 2, this time Lear’s request for forgiveness is sincere, while his kneeling down no longer signifies only self-abasement. Rather, Lear’s asking for forgiveness is now part of a reciprocal ritual, in which Cordelia, in turn, asks for his blessing, echoing the ‘benediction’ for which she asks in Act 4, Scene 7. Moreover, Lear sees Cordelia’s forgiveness not as a single, definitive event but as something for which he will ask time and again and which will therefore never be finished. Indeed, he would almost like their future life together to be reduced to a ritual re-enactment of forgiveness. At the same time, such endlessly repeated forgiveness is part of the withdrawal from the world about which Lear is fantasizing here, and part of his acceptance of his imprisonment at the hands of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. Forgiveness as an act of unconditional grace, therefore, has at best an extremely limited purchase on the tragic world of the play. Like Isabella’s egalitarian mercy in Measure for Measure, it is ultimately glimpsed only as a fleeting possibility: Lear’s fantasy of constantly renewed forgiveness is, of course, cut short by Cordelia’s death. Even the rather less utopian scene of reconciliation between Edmund and Edgar is an abortive one, drowned out by the tragic ending which is unfolding around it. When Edmund urges his brother to ‘speak […] on’ (5.3.199), a gentleman enters to announce the deaths of Goneril and Regan, while Edmund’s deathbed attempt to prevent the murder of Cordelia, the most important practical consequence of his repentance and remorse, is unsuccessful. In a suggestive reading of forgiveness in King Lear, John Hughes argues that Cordelia’s decision not to hold her father to account entails an implicit rejection of both the fixed, hierarchical social order in which Lear and Gloucester at least initially believe and the self-seeking individualism represented especially by Edmund.16 In the opening scene of the play, Lear himself of course stubbornly refuses to forgive Cordelia for her refusal to flatter him: ‘Come not between the dragon and his wrath!’ (1.1.123). Likewise, Goneril associates Christian notions of forgiveness with weakness, as when she accuses Albany of being a ‘Milk-liver’d man, / That bear’st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs’ (4.2.51–52). Hughes furthermore maintains that interpersonal forgiveness is ‘dependent upon a distinctively theological horizon of trust in grace and hope for resurrection as the condition of its very possibility’.17 The forgiveness offered by Cordelia (and, to a lesser extent, by Edgar), in other words, is both motivated and made possible by the existence of a forgiving Christian God, whose prior, loving forgiveness of sinful humanity serves to ground radical human acts of forgiveness. Indeed, on Hughes’s reading, this is what keeps such human acts from descending into a ‘pathological self-denial that is almost a will to death’.18


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Yet while Cordelia’s generosity towards Lear certainly invites comparison to divine grace,19 such a metaphysical foundation of forgiveness is nowhere explicitly evoked in the pre-Christian world of King Lear. Indeed, the play frequently hints precisely at the absence of any transcendental horizon. Lear’s anguished questions at the end of the play – ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?’ (5.3.305–306) – remain famously unanswered, while Gloucester’s lament that ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport’ (4.1.38–39) evokes not a forgiving Christian deity but a plurality of indifferent pagan gods. At no point does Cordelia herself link her own forgiveness of her father to a prior act of divine forgiveness of humanity, nor does Edgar, in exchanging chivalrous forgiveness with Edmund, act on a sense of Christian forgiveness. Within the terms offered by the play itself, therefore, Cordelia’s radical act of forgiveness is ultimately best understood as grounded only in her love of her father, rather than in a form of forgiveness that precedes or transcends the human. This love rests at least in part on a continuing sense of filial duty even to the father who has wronged her. As her shock at Lear’s wish to kneel before her suggests, moreover, this sense of duty has a hierarchical dimension. In King Lear, even the most radically generous form of forgiveness offers no decisive escape from the destructive hierarchies which render such forgiveness necessary in the first place.

Remorse, power and forgiveness deferred in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest The question of reconciliation returns with especial intensity in the romances. I have singled out The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as my case studies here. Both plays are centrally concerned with the question of whether reconciliation is possible after destructive interpersonal conflicts, and with the forms that such reconciliation can take. Both plays also zoom in on the relations between reconciliation, power and hierarchy, as well as on the question of how the language of divine forgiveness can be applied to scenes of interpersonal reconciliation. Both plays examine whether, and in what ways, interpersonal reconciliation can take on the character of divine grace: whether it can escape from relations of power and be motivated by something akin to the loving generosity displayed by Cordelia in King Lear, and whether such reconciliation presents a viable form of comic closure in plays that veer perilously close to tragedy. In this sense, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest can be seen as attempts

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


to wrest reconciliation both from the tragic world of King Lear and from its role in the consolidation of state power evoked in Measure for Measure. Both plays also suggest a correspondence between reconciliation and drama, framing the theatre, and the experience of watching a play, as agents of reconciliation. Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale, is offered a degree of forgiveness through the intensely metadramatic moment of Hermione’s revival – a moment at which the audience is invited to ‘awake’ their ‘faith’ in a theatrical miracle together with Leontes himself. Prospero likewise ends The Tempest by asking the audience to pardon him, suggesting that his forgiveness depends on their generosity, and on their willingness to recognize him as a fellow sinner. Yet in both plays, reconciliation cannot fully extricate itself from power relations, or from the threat of tragedy which it is designed to ward off. Indeed, the language of forgiveness in The Tempest is shot through with notions of hierarchy, while in The Winter’s Tale forgiveness remains beyond the reach of the play itself, always on the cusp of becoming reality. The Winter’s Tale clearly evokes the language of divine forgiveness in the deep, self-tormenting remorse which Leontes feels about his irrational and extreme marital jealousy, which has resulted in the deaths of his wife Hermione and his son Mamillius (the play is famously ambivalent on the question of whether Hermione has indeed died).20 On the logic of divine forgiveness scenarios, such profound contrition would help to render him eligible for forgiveness. It is clear that Leontes’s contrition marks a moral change both from his earlier, utter disregard for others, and from his assumption, after he is informed of the death of Mamillius in Act 3, Scene 2, that he will be able to contain the damage he has caused and find reconciliation with those he has wronged (and have survived). While the news of the death of his son does bring about a change of heart, he is sure that he will ‘reconcile’ (3.2.153) with Polixenes, ‘new woo’ (3.2.154) Hermione and make amends with Camillo. It is only when Paulina subsequently convinces him that Hermione, too, has died that Leontes comes to experience a more fundamental and thoroughgoing form of remorse: a ‘shame perpetual’ (3.2.236) which he will act out in daily penance ‘So long as nature / Will bear up with this exercise’ (3.2.238–39). Yet far from leading to forgiveness, Leontes’s remorse is self-perpetuating and produces a dramatic stalemate. No amount of remorse seems sufficient to render his terrible crime forgivable. Indeed, Paulina insists that Leontes’s repentance is futile since his misdeeds are beyond repentance: O thou tyrant! Do not repent these things, for they are heavier


A Literary History of Reconciliation Than all thy woes can stir: therefore betake thee To nothing but despair. (3.2.205–208)

In her admonishments to Leontes, Paulina also insists that things are ‘past help’ (3.2.220): the consequences of Leontes’s actions are irrevocable, the damage he has caused beyond repair. In doing so, she excludes the possibility of forgiveness in the sense proposed by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. What forgiveness enables for Arendt is precisely a liberation from past actions, a way of breaking the power of the past: The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what one was doing – is the faculty of forgiving. […] Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover[.]21

That Paulina explicitly presents Leontes’s forgiveness as an impossibility, the past as irreversible, also means that the latter’s off-stage remorse is effectively a neverending exercise in self-blame. He resolves to do daily penance at the graves of Hermione and Mamillius, yet without hope of absolution, and at the beginning of Act 5, he still seems destined to feel remorse and repent until his dying day. Urging Leontes to ‘forgive himself ’, Cleomenes attempts to reassure him that he has ‘done enough’ and has even ‘paid down / More penitence than done trespass’ (5.1.6, 1, 3–4). While for Cleomenes, guilt can be measured and therefore adequately atoned for, Leontes is caught in an unceasing, self-sustaining guilt: Whilst I remember Her, and her virtues, I cannot forget My blemishes in them, and so still think of The wrong I did myself: which was so much, That heirless it hath made my kingdom, and Destroyed the sweet’st companion that e’er man Bred his hopes out of. (5.1.6–12)

It is Paulina who keeps reminding Leontes of his crimes, and who insists that his sense of guilt remain undiminished. Indeed, the notion that through his sixteenyear period of penance, Leontes has redeemed himself – and therefore that the heinousness of his crimes can be quantified – seems informed by political rather than ethical or spiritual considerations. As Dion explains, Paulina’s insistence that Leontes never remarry poses a danger to the continuation of the realm:

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


You […] consider little What dangers, by his highness’ fail of issue, May drop upon his kingdom, and devour Incertain lookers on. (5.1.25–29)

Of course, Paulina’s uncompromising stance is part of a larger plan to restore Hermione to her husband, and when Leontes agrees never to remarry until ‘[his] first queen’s again in breath’ (5.1.83), she is in fact preparing him for the miracle of her resurrection. Leontes’s eventual reunion with the wife he killed (or thinks he killed) comes when he has resigned himself to the idea that nothing can absolve or undo his wrongful actions. His self-perpetuating contrition is productive, therefore, in the sense that it is precisely his conviction that he is beyond redemption that helps to create the circumstances in which forgiveness becomes possible. In spite of this, Leontes’s reunion and reconciliation with Hermione is not in the first instance enabled by his remorse. Rather, when Hermione’s statue comes to life, Leontes is required to abandon his despair and make a leap of faith. Paulina asks him, and the other characters present, to credit the reality of Hermione’s resurrection in the mode of religious belief: ‘It is requir’d / You do awake your faith’ (5.3.94–95). That is to say, he needs to believe in her resurrection as a sacramental miracle that takes place in spite of the continuing reality and absoluteness of his own crimes. This miracle, moreover, is ultimately not brought about by Leontes’s own penance, and does not mark the moment of his absolution. Indeed, the statue of Hermione initially strikes Leontes with shame and a renewed sense of his own guilt: ‘There’s magic in thy majesty, which has / My evils conjur’d to remembrance’ (5.3.39–40). He can only move beyond this, and be reunited with Hermione, by accepting the incongruous reality of the ‘marvel’ (5.3.100) of the statue’s coming to life, and with this the partial erasure of his misdeeds – and to do so in the knowledge that both of these things are an impossibility. The Winter’s Tale can be said to examine one recurrent theme of this study, in that it explores in what sense remorse can serve as a road to interpersonal reconciliation (as opposed to divine forgiveness). Yet the play suggests that after grievous wrongs of the kind committed by Leontes, reconciliation – a future beyond those wrongs – is possible only as an unmerited, miraculous gift, rather than as a response to human penance and remorse, even though such remorse may in itself be a necessary step towards forgiveness. In Act 5, Scene 2, one of the gentlemen recounting the reconciliation between Leontes and Polixenes, and the former’s reunion with Perdita, is determined to visit the statue of Hermione, stating that


A Literary History of Reconciliation

with ‘every wink of an eye, some new grace will be born’ (5.2.111–12). The play invites us to see Leontes’s eventual reunion with Hermione at least in part in these religious terms. As Frances Dolan notes, the play ‘does convey a belief in, or at least a hope of, “grace” – good fortune that exceeds our desert’.22 John Pitcher aptly describes Hermione’s resurrection as a ‘counterfactual’ that is possible only in the world of romance, where the distinction between the factual and the illusory is blurry and the two can in fact co-exist.23 Indeed, the play suggests that it is especially in the make-believe world of the theatre that faith in a future after tragedy is possible, since it is in the theatre that the distinction between reality and fiction is temporarily bracketed and the dead can be brought to life, the traumas of the past partially lifted.24 This means that Paulina’s injunction to ‘awake your faith’ is addressed not only to Leontes and other characters in The Winter’s Tale, but also to the audience, who are asked to suspend – or discard as irrelevant – the common-sense explanation that Hermione simply went into hiding for sixteen years, and credit, against their better knowledge, the theatrical marvel unfolding before their eyes. Indeed, in this way they help to make that marvel possible.25 Yet The Winter’s Tale also draws attention to the tragic loss that remains unredeemed by miracles, and that cannot be undone by an awakening of faith. Hermione has aged, no longer able to bear children and the final reconciliation scene is haunted by the spectre of the boy Mamillius, whose death, unlike Hermione’s, is ‘past help’, and by Paulina’s grief over the death of Antigonus: I, an old turtle, Will wing me to some wither’d bough, and there My mate (that’s never to be found again) Lament, till I am lost. (5.3.132–135)

Leontes’s sudden announcement, in response to Paulina’s words, that Camillo will marry her, hardly undoes the darkening effect of her grief on the play’s closing scene. Given Leontes’s indirect responsibility for Antigonus’s death, moreover, his sudden decision over Paulina’s future love-life is likely to disturb audiences. What is more, at no point does Hermione explicitly forgive Leontes. Indeed, when her statue has come to life, she embraces her husband but never addresses him, speaking instead only to her daughter: Tell me, mine own, Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found Thy father’s court? For thou shalt hear that I,

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


Knowing by Paulina that the Oracle Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserv’d Myself to see the issue. (5.3.123–28)

It is her hope, then, of a reunion not with her husband but with Perdita that has incited Hermione to ‘preserve’ herself. Julia Lupton has read the reconciliation between Hermione and Leontes in relation to a debate on forgiveness between W.  H. Auden and Hannah Arendt. Their debate centred on the question of whether – pace Auden – forgiveness is a purely inward act, or if, as Arendt argued, it requires an other-oriented speech act uttered in some form of public arena.26 As Lupton notes, ‘if we agree with Arendt that forgiving involves speech, Hermione does not actually forgive Leontes in the time of the play’.27 Indeed, the play suggests that it falls to Perdita to effect a form of reconciliation between Hermione and Leontes. When Paulina, seeming to sense the deep awkwardness of the situation, tells Perdita to ‘interpose, fair madam’ (5.3.119), the verb ‘interpose’ means ‘to put oneself forward or interfere in a matter; to step in between persons at variance or in a person’s behalf; to intervene’.28 In kneeling before her mother, therefore, Perdita mediates between her parents, in a supplication by proxy: she kneels in part on Leontes’s behalf. Paulina’s ‘pray your mother’s blessing’ (5.3.119) does not specify who or what it is that Perdita should ask Hermione to bless – herself, Leontes, both of them or their reunion as a family. Yet Perdita’s interposing does not seem to bring Hermione and Leontes more closely together. Rather, before Perdita has even had a chance to speak, Hermione responds to her kneeling by asking the ‘gods’ (5.3.121) to bless only her daughter. If, as Lupton suggests, Hermione’s blessing of Perdita ‘prepar[es] the ground for a forgiveness to come’, such forgiveness is postponed beyond the end of the play itself.29 Within the time of the play, Hermione’s blessing of Perdita effectively takes the place of her forgiving Leontes, which is at best only gestured at. In a more thoroughly pessimistic reading, Gregory Currie questions the relevance and moral efficacy of Leontes’s remorse, arguing that the power of forgiveness in the play is severely limited by his lack of moral change. Currie’s argument hinges on the question of whether an inner, emotional state like contrition guarantees a change in actual behaviour. Bringing an Aristotelian understanding of virtue to the play, he argues that ‘virtue arises from action, not from an inactive repentance, however sincere’; a move towards practical virtue requires the cultivation of new, self-critical ‘habits of mind’.30 As an example of Leontes’s failure to cultivate those new habits, Currie cites his desire, just before Hermione’s revival, to believe that her statue is alive:


A Literary History of Reconciliation Make me to think so twenty years together! No settled senses of the world can match The pleasure of that madness. (5.3.71–73)

Far from signalling change, Currie argues, this moment marks ‘a continuation of Leontes’ fantasy state’ – a continuation, therefore, of the very propensity for imagination, and the refusal to accept a ‘settled sense of the world’, that has wreaked such havoc.31 If the reconciliation between Leontes and Hermione remains fraught, and ‘incipient rather than achieved’, the reconciliation between Leontes and Polixenes, and the reunion between Leontes and Perdita, is evoked as a less problematic and more clearly joyful affair.32 When, in Act 5, Scene 2, the ‘Second Gentleman’ admits that he was not present at the reunion, the ‘Third Gentleman’ responds as follows: Then have you lost a sight which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of. There might you have beheld one joy crown another, so and in such manner that it seemed sorrow wept to take leave of them, for their joy waded in tears. There was casting up of eyes, holding up of hands, with countenance of such distraction that they were to be known by garment, not by favour. Our king, being ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter, as if that joy were now become a loss, cries ‘O, thy mother, thy mother!’ then asks Bohemia forgiveness; then embraces his son-in-law; then again worries he his daughter with clipping her; now he thanks the old shepherd, which stands by, like a weather-bitten conduit of many kings’ reigns. I never heard of such another encounter, which lames report to follow it, and undoes description to do it. (5.2.43–59)

This is the one moment in the play at which Leontes explicitly asks forgiveness from another character, and the passage invites us to surmise that this forgiveness is readily offered by Polixenes, albeit perhaps not in the form of an explicit, verbal statement of forgiveness but rather through the tears of joy which he is described as shedding. Indeed, recounting the first time Polixenes and Leontes lay eyes on each other since Act 1, the ‘First Gentleman’ says that ‘there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture’ (5.2.14–15). Given Leontes’s deep remorse for his crime against Hermione, and given the climactic importance of their reunion, it is ironic that such successful forgiveness is reserved for Leontes and Polixenes, whose male friendship is imagined by Polixenes as rooted in a prelapsarian childhood in which they ‘knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing’ (1.2.69–70), their innocence broken by their first encounter with women. Moreover, this moment of effective forgiveness is never represented directly on

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


stage but only recounted in a narrative that contains two levels of indirection: it describes to the Second Gentleman what he might have witnessed had he been present at the reunion between Leontes and Polixenes. Furthermore, the ‘Third Gentleman’ repeatedly stresses the extent to which the scene he describes defies representation, and cannot be captured in speech. While the passage suggests that an Audenesque form of unspoken forgiveness took place between Polixenes and Leontes, therefore, it also hints that such forgiveness exists at the edge of the representational capacities of the theatre, and can be evoked only as an absence. This is further underlined when, in an earlier moment, Camillo advises Polixenes’s son Florizel to flee to Sicily until his father has accepted his marriage to Perdita. Camillo expects that Florizel and Perdita will be welcomed by Leontes, and he even imagines Leontes asking for forgiveness from Florizel as if the latter were Polixenes: Methinks I see Leontes opening his free arms and weeping His welcomes forth; asks thee there ‘Son, forgiveness!’ As ’twere i’th’ father’s person; kisses the hands Of your fresh princess; o’er and o’er divides him ‘Twixt his unkindness and his kindness; th’ one He chides to hell, and bids the other grow Faster than thought or time. (4.4.549–56)

Like the gentleman in Act 5, Camillo evokes an off-stage scene in which Leontes asks for forgiveness from another party. In this case, that party is not an equal like Polixenes but a much younger character, and the forgiveness imagined by Camillo entails an inversion of hierarchies similar to Lear’s asking forgiveness from Cordelia. Camillo’s words anticipate Florizel and Perdita’s arrival at Leontes’s court in Act 5, Scene 1. On seeing Florizel and Perdita, Leontes is reminded once again of his terrible wrongdoings against Polixenes: ‘You have a holy father, / […] against whose person […] / I have done sin’ (5.1.169–71). Yet for all the remorse he feels at this moment, and although he does give the young couple a warm welcome, he does not ask Florizel for vicarious forgiveness, and in this sense, the scene falls short of what Camillo had envisaged. In The Winter’s Tale, then, forgiveness as imagined, hoped-for or recounted by characters is more successful, and less fraught, than the forgiveness we see enacted onstage in the closing scene. This confers upon forgiveness an elusive and hypothetical character which we will also encounter in literary works discussed in later chapters (Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and J. M. Coetzee’s


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Disgrace are two prominent examples). In the case of The Winter’s Tale, it also means that Paulina’s insistence that we awake our faith as audience gains in urgency. If forgiveness is ardently wished for – or glowingly narrated – by various characters, but never fully realized in the time of the play itself, the task of imagining forgiveness is finally passed on to the audience itself, whose awakened faith in the possibility of reconciliation after destructive conflict must be maintained when they have left the playhouse. Reconciliation and forgiveness have also been seen as central to The Tempest since at least the late nineteenth century, with Edward Dowden’s Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875), discussed in more detail in Chapter 5, as a locus classicus. Discussions of forgiveness in the play hinge on the pivotal moment in Act 5, Scene 1, when Prospero decides to exchange his vengefulness for a more forgiving attitude towards his wrongdoers: ‘The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance’ (5.1.27–28).33 It is this decision that makes a comic ending possible, allowing the play to veer away in its final act from tragic retaliation. One reason why Prospero foregoes vengeance at this point is that Ariel has alerted him to the suffering he has inflicted on Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio and their company, challenging Prospero to feel compassion for his wrongdoers: ‘If you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender’ (5.1.18–19). While Prospero responds by declaring a sense of universal human kinship even with Antonio, he does so in part because he is stung by Ariel’s comments. His words suggest a sense of competition with Ariel, framing his own greater capacity for empathy as a sign of his moral superiority over his nonhuman servant spirit: Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling Of their afflictions, and shall not myself (One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, Passion as they) be kindlier moved than thou art? (5.1.21–24)

Prospero’s newly acquired empathy is also qualified by the fact that he decides against vengeance because he is convinced that the suffering which Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio have undergone has made them ‘penitent’ (5.1.28). This, he says, was ‘the sole drift of my purpose’ (5.1.29). The aim of Prospero’s project was to instil remorse in his wrongdoers, and especially in Antonio; this remorse now makes forgiveness possible. The forgiveness which Prospero eventually offers, then, is fundamentally transactional: partly rooted in universal human empathy but also contingent on an appropriate degree of contrition.

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


It remains to be seen whether Prospero is correct in concluding that all of his prisoners are remorseful. To be sure, he does succeed in instilling a deep sense of remorse in Alonso. In Act 3, Scene 3 Ariel, in the shape of a harpy, addresses Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio as ‘three men of sin’ (53), informing Alonso that his son Ferdinand has drowned as a punishment for his father’s crimes. Alonso’s response is a mixture of remorse, guilt and suicidal despair: O, it is monstrous, monstrous! Methought the billows spoke and told me of it; The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder – That deep and dreadful organ pipe – pronounced The name of Prosper. It did bass my trespass. Therefor my son i’ th’ ooze is bedded, and I’ll seek him deeper than e’er plummet sounded, And with him there lie mudded. (3.3.95–102)

This moment arguably marks the apex of Prospero’s power in the play in that it is his most successful attempt to intervene in and shape his prisoners’ emotional lives – what Stephen Greenblatt refers to as Prospero’s ‘artful manipulation of anxiety’.34 Alonso is convinced that he has been addressed and sentenced by a supernatural, godlike force, his guilt proclaimed by the elements. At the end of the scene, Gonzalo, much like Prospero himself in the final act of the play, concludes that ‘All three of them are desperate’ and that ‘their great guilt, / Like poison given to work a great time after, / Now ’gins to bite the spirits’ (3.3.105– 07). The phrase ‘bite the spirits’ is conventionally glossed as ‘erode their vitality’,35 yet it also (and perhaps more appropriately, given Gonzalo’s reference to guilt) evokes the etymological roots of ‘remorse’ in the Latin ‘remordēre’: ‘to bite back, bite in return’.36 Gonzalo sees Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian as experiencing a belated remorse. Yet unlike Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio do not in fact show any signs of guilt or remorse. Far from reading Ariel’s monologue as the pronouncements of a godlike entity, they are determined to fight the ‘legions’ of ‘fiend[s]’ (3.3.103–04) which they believe have attacked them. It seems clear, therefore, that Prospero’s confidence, at the beginning of the final scene, in the penitence of all of his wrongdoers is premature. Indeed, Antonio remains virtually silent throughout the closing scene, with the exception of his dehumanizing joke about Caliban: ‘One of them / Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable’ (5.1.266–67). This makes the problem of his remorse an acute one. Antonio’s feelings in the closing scene remain unknowable, and this compromises the very basis of the reconciliation that marks the play’s comic ending.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

If it is Alonso who shows remorse in Act 3, it is also Alonso who is most generously and unambiguously forgiven by Prospero in Act 5. When Prospero presents himself to his enemies as ‘the wronged Duke of Milan’ (5.1.107), Alonso ‘entreat[s]’ him to ‘pardon me my wrongs’ (5.1.118–19). In a moment that distinctly recalls various moments of forgiveness in King Lear, Alonso repents once again of his part in Prospero’s usurpation, wanting to ask forgiveness from Miranda, who is now his daughter-in-law, yet also noting the incongruity of such a gesture: ‘I am hers. / But O, how oddly will it sound that I / Must ask my child forgiveness’ (5.1.197–99). Alonso’s lines echo Lear’s reluctant kneeling before Goneril, Cordelia’s insistence, at their reunion, that he do not kneel for her, and Lear’s fantasy of kneeling eagerly before Cordelia in an ever re-enacted plea for forgiveness. These echoes are further underlined by Prospero’s response to Alonso: ‘There, sir, stop. / Let us not burden our remembrances with / A heaviness that’s gone’ (5.1.199–201). Like Cordelia’s forgiveness of her father, Prospero’s forgiveness of Alonso also has the character of an act of oblivion: he relegates their former conflict, and his own anger, to the past, to be erased from their memory. Furthermore, as Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan explain, ‘in some performances, Alonso tries to kneel before Miranda while asking forgiveness but is prevented by Prospero who raises him back up with this line’.37 Prospero, then, shows a Cordelia-like generosity to Alonso, not only preventing him from humiliating himself before Miranda but also from explicitly asking for forgiveness in the first place. In this way, he pre-empts – again in a Cordelia-like gesture – the inversion of conventional patriarchal hierarchies that makes Lear’s imagined plea for forgiveness so radical. If, as we have seen, such a subversive form of forgiveness is only momentarily glimpsed in King Lear, it is also excluded from the comic ending of The Tempest. Alonso’s remorse entitles him to retaining his regal and patriarchal status, unhumiliated by an act of supplication. If Prospero is capable of administering what Edward Dowden called ‘the balm of [his] forgiveness’ to Alonso, his other gestures of reconciliation are more restrained and qualified.38 This holds true especially for his reconciliation with Antonio, whom he forgives at two different moments in Act 5, Scene 1. The first occurs when Antonio is still under his spell, incapable of responding to, or even registering, his words. The second occurs when Antonio is fully conscious. The first time, Prospero addresses the still unconscious Antonio as follows: Flesh and blood, You, brother mine, that entertained ambition, Expelled remorse and nature, whom, with Sebastian (Whose inward pinches therefore are most strong)

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


Would here have killed your king, I do forgive thee, Unnatural though thou art. (5.1.74–79)

Remarkably, Prospero acknowledges Antonio as his ‘flesh and blood’ and ‘brother mine’, and forgives him, even though he is incapable of feeling remorse.39 His words at this point suggest that he is prepared to renew his fraternal relationship with Antonio – although this is undermined by his simultaneous insistence that Antonio is ‘unnatural’, and therefore excluded from such a bond. If this suggests that Prospero’s reconciliation with Antonio is partial, and tinged with a continuing resentment, his second forgiveness of Antonio is even more fraught: For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive Thy rankest fault – all of them; and require My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know Thou must restore. (5.1.131–35)

As Sarah Beckwith notes, it is only when Antonio is still under the sway of Prospero’s magic that Prospero is prepared to forgive him and acknowledge him as his brother.40 During this second forgiveness moment, by contrast, Antonio is fully conscious, and Prospero explicitly disowns him as a brother. Moreover, whereas Prospero initially offers Antonio full forgiveness as a person (‘I do forgive thee’), this time he merely forgives Antonio’s ‘rankest fault’. The second formulation suggests a split between Antonio on the one hand and his crimes on the other, and therefore a more limited forgiveness, in which Prospero absolves Antonio’s wrongdoings but does not renew their fraternal relationship. Finally, this second forgiveness also involves a reassertion of power on Prospero’s part, when Prospero insists that Antonio return his dukedom, and that the latter ‘must perforce’ do so, now that he is once again in Prospero’s power. This moment of reconciliation is also the moment of Antonio’s final humiliation by Prospero. The degree to which Prospero and Antonio can be said to reconcile remains elusive, therefore, and Prospero certainly does not offer Antonio the more generous, and more non-hierarchical forgiveness he bestows on Alonso. Unlike Alonso, Sebastian is never explicitly forgiven by Prospero. This is all the more remarkable since Prospero, as we have seen, describes him as feeling inner anguish about his part in Prospero’s usurpation and in the attempt to assassinate Alonso. While Alonso’s remorse seems to render him eligible for forgiveness, Sebastian’s ‘inward pinches’ fail to have a similar effect. It should be emphasized, in this context, that the play offers no clear support for Prospero’s


A Literary History of Reconciliation

claim. As we have seen, Ariel’s performance as a harpy fails to impress Sebastian. While he does seem to have a change of heart in the play’s closing scene, when he greets the discovery of Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess as ‘a most high miracle’ (5.1.178), he continues to crack sneering jokes with Antonio, especially at Caliban’s expense. Nothing suggests that he is experiencing the pangs of conscience which Prospero attributes to him earlier in the scene, remaining instead remarkably unaffected, like Antonio, by the revelations unfolding around him. Prospero’s claim that Sebastian is inwardly ‘pinched’ (5.1.77) for his crimes, then, seems a form of wish-fulfilment. When, towards the end of Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero has offered various forms and degrees of forgiveness to his former enemies, he has yet to reconcile with Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban, who have, in a sense, taken the place of Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian in conspiring against Prospero’s life. Prospero does not seek retaliation against them, instead assigning responsibility for Stephano and Trinculo to Alonso, while claiming authority over Caliban: ‘Two of these fellows you / Must know and own; this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ (5.1.275–77). Prospero’s much commented-on phrase ‘this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ may suggest a form of reconciliation in that it expresses a paradoxical sense of identification with Caliban.41 The moment also echoes Prospero’s earlier forgiving acknowledgement of Antonio as ‘brother mine’. Yet a few lines later, Prospero makes clear that Caliban is eligible for pardoning only if he performs a last service for his master: Go, sirrah, to my cell; Take with you your companions. As you look To have my pardon, trim it handsomely. (5.1.293–95)

Caliban’s responds submissively: ‘Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace’ (5.1.296–97). ‘Grace’ in line 297 has often been read as meaning ‘mercy’ or ‘forgiveness’, and therefore as indicating Caliban’s remorse and repentance.42 While, as Deborah Willis notes, Caliban’s unexpected capacity for remorse ‘undermines Prospero’s statement that “nurture can never stick” upon the “born devil”’, it also signals his continuing, voluntary subjection to his master.43 In this sense, the religious language of forgiveness – with ‘grace’ carrying the suggestion of spontaneous, unmerited, divine forgiveness – serves as an instrument in the restoring or maintaining of hierarchies that is such an important component of the reconciliations in the play: Alonso is prevented from humiliating himself before Miranda, while in forgiving Antonio and Caliban, Prospero also asserts his power over them.

Reconciliation, Power and Grace in Shakespeare


As we have seen, Prospero’s forgiveness especially of Sebastian and Antonio remains partial, his resentment towards Antonio barely suppressed, and his reconciliation with Sebastian only implied. The incompleteness of the reconciliation in Act 5, Scene 1 is underlined by centrality of forgiveness in Prospero’s epilogue. He famously asks the audience to pardon his faults and to ensure his forgiveness by praying for him. Whereas Prospero initially wished to punish others for their wrongdoings, he now confesses to unspecified crimes of his own. At no point does Prospero express remorse for his ‘faults’ (Epilogue.18), however; nor does he present remorse as a reason why he should be forgiven. Rather, Prospero urges the audience to forgive him, and in this way release him from the fictional world of the play, because the audience members themselves are part of sinful humanity, and therefore in need of forgiveness: ‘As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free’ (Epilogue.19–20). As in Isabella’s pleas with Angelo in Measure for Measure, universal human fallibility and sinfulness should render all human beings willing to forgive others. In addition to this, Prospero presents his loss of magical power as a reason for forgiving him. It was his decision to forgive his enemies that led to his renunciation of his magical powers, abjuring his ‘rough magic’ (5.1.50). Without his magical art, he is a vulnerable human being; this renders him dependent on others and therefore eligible for forgiveness. As Prospero’s epilogue suggests, The Tempest ultimately presents universal human vulnerability and the universal human capacity for sin – rather than a wrongdoer’s remorse or self-humiliation – as reasons for forgiveness. It is also in the epilogue, therefore, that the play seems to escape from its earlier, more fraught moments of forgiveness – although the word ‘pardoned’ (Epilogue.7) in Prospero’s epilogue resonates ominously with his offer of pardon to Caliban on the condition that he ‘trim [his cell] handsomely’. The epilogue also suggests that forgiveness is a fundamentally religious act, intelligible only if it is couched in the language of divine forgiveness. Prospero simultaneously asks for forgiveness from God and from the audience: my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces to that it assaults Mercy itself, and frees all faults. (Epilogue.15–18)

Interpersonal reconciliation is imagined here in fundamentally religious terms, as a matter of grace that erases all sin, an act of faith that is ultimately unrelated to penance or remorse on the part of a wrongdoer. Reconciliation, both in The


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Winter’s Tale and in The Tempest, ultimately requires a leap of faith in the possibility of a future after traumatic conflict. No amount of remorse or penance can render genuinely destructive wrongs forgivable, and in such cases, reconciliation, like divine grace, can only be an unconditional gift. In other words, to transfer divine forgiveness to the human sphere is to turn interpersonal reconciliation at least potentially into a form of grace. This, in Shakespeare, is perhaps the only way to forgive the unforgivable – with Leontes’s murderous jealousy as a case in point. Yet such forgiveness is not fully realized in the time of either The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest. In the latter play, it is explicitly transferred instead to the audience’s response, and with that to a world beyond that of the play. Prospero can only pray ardently for the forgiving generosity which he seeks from the audience – although he also suggests that they can forgive him simply by the ritual, and almost unavoidable, act of applauding.


‘Pray Your Honour Forgive Me!’: Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House

As Richard Hughes Gibson has recently shown, forgiveness holds centre stage in prose fiction of the nineteenth century, both thematically and in terms of plot structure.1 Forgiveness forms the end, in both senses of the term, which many novels of the period work towards – successfully or not. During the nineteenth century, prose fiction also served as a crucial site for examining the nature and meaning of forgiveness. As becomes clear from Gibson’s analysis, nineteenthcentury novels frequently frame remorse and repentance as important enablers of forgiveness: remorse signals a moral transformation on the part of wrongdoers that renders them eligible for forgiveness, both by other characters and by God. Remorse, in this sense, becomes synonymous with plot resolution, existing as the ‘event’ that creates narrative movement. Prose fiction, therefore, seems to have helped to codify – and invest with cultural currency – the modern-day paradigm of remorse-based forgiveness which has been a point of reference throughout this book. Prominent case studies discussed by Gibson include Anthony Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870) – in which the ‘fallen woman’ Carry Brattle is eventually forgiven by her father – and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) – with its fraught forgiveness scenes between Sue Bridehead and Jude Fawley, and between Sue and Richard Phillotson. Further instructive examples are Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861). In Jane Eyre, Jane forgives her childhood tormentor Mrs Reed. Sitting by the latter’s deathbed, Jane tells her that ‘you have my full and free forgiveness: ask now for God’s; and be at peace’ (242). In spite of Jane’s generosity, this forgiveness scene is problematic: Mrs Reed shows no remorse and continues to reject Jane until the very end. It is especially Jane herself who feels a ‘strong yearning to forget and forgive all injuries’ (232), and her forgiveness stems in the first instance from a sense of pity with the embittered, loveless Mrs Reed. A more satisfying


A Literary History of Reconciliation

form of reconciliation occurs between Jane and Edward Rochester, whom Jane forgives in response to the intensely religious remorse which he displays in what is arguably the novel’s narrative climax: I did wrong. […] Divine justice pursued its course; disasters came thick on me: I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. […] Of late Jane – only of late – I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were, but very sincere. (452)

Rochester’s deeply felt remorse paves the way to his reunion with, and marriage to, Jane. At the end of the chapter, he repeats his resolution to mend his ways: ‘I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto’ (453). The ‘redeemer’ to which Rochester refers is both God and Jane herself, and Rochester feels remorse before both. In spite of this, the moment of Rochester’s forgiveness itself is absent from Brontë’s novel, withheld from the reader. In an analysis of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1880–81), J. Hillis Miller points out that ‘none of Isabel [Archer’s] crucial moments of decision is directly represented in the novel, only what comes before and after each of them’.2 A similar observation can be made of Jane’s forgiveness of Rochester: it is simultaneously pivotal to the novel’s comic ending and beyond narrative representation. As readers, we are privy only to its result: ‘Reader, I married him’ (454). The central human relationships in Great Expectations – between Pip on the one hand and Joe, Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Estella on the other – culminate in scenes of reconciliation, with Pip variously granting (or being asked for) and seeking forgiveness. It is Miss Havisham who most explicitly and urgently asks forgiveness from Pip. In chapter 49, she expresses a hope that he will one day be able to forgive her: ‘My name is on the first leaf. If you can ever write under my name, “I forgive her,” though ever so longer after my broken heart is dust – pray do it!’. Miss Havisham is convinced that her wrongdoings to Pip are so grave that forgiveness can only be a distant, hypothetical, future possibility. Yet this does not diminish the fervour of her plea. Indeed, it is precisely because she thinks of herself as unforgivable that she so insistently asks for forgiveness throughout the remainder of the chapter, anxiously repeating the question ‘What have I done!’ (410–411). Both examples show how forgiveness in nineteenth-century fiction, in spite of its thematic and structural centrality, can be hedged about with a set of

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


interlocking problems: it can be postponed beyond death, as in the case of Miss Havisham; it can be marred by unresponsiveness, or lack of remorse, on the part of the wrongdoer, as in the case of Mrs Reed; or it can be beyond narrative representation, as with Jane’s forgiveness of Rochester. In this sense, forgiveness, in nineteenth-century fiction, is characterized by what Richard Gibson rightly calls a ‘chimeric’ quality.3 My focus in this chapter is primarily on the more directly political and ideological questions to which forgiveness gives rise, and which, I argue, form a dimension of fictive representations of forgiveness that has been relatively overlooked. As I hope to show, the issue of forgiveness in prose fiction is fundamentally bound up with questions of gender and class hierarchies, and with the issue of power. This political dimension of forgiveness, moreover, is also strongly present in eighteenth-century fiction – starting at least with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) – and therefore from the very beginnings of what is now commonly thought of as ‘the novel’ in English. The politics of forgiveness in prose fiction can be usefully examined, therefore, in terms of a longue duree that spans both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. This chapter presents four case studies, discussed in chronological order, which together cover a timespan of more than a century, from 1740 to the early 1850s: Pamela (1740), William Godwin’s Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), and Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846–48) and Bleak House (1852–3). All four novels work towards one or more moments of forgiveness, exploring the ways in which forgiveness can serve as an enabler of comic plot resolution. They are also preoccupied with the meaning and function of forgiveness in marriage and within the family more broadly, as well as in class relations. How does the lexicon of forgiveness, with remorse often figuring as a key term, serve to legitimize and reproduce existing gender and class hierarchies? Can the idea of forgiveness be deployed for a critique of these hierarchies, and even help to transform them? In this sense, the four case studies examined in this chapter zoom in on the broader political ramifications of forgiveness which this study as a whole examines. In a number of ways, Dombey and Son offers the most vivid illustration of the argument presented in this chapter. First, Dickens’s novel exemplifies the extent to which forgiveness, in eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century prose fiction, became synonymous with comic narrative closure. Second, it points to the importance of remorse and moral self-reform within fictional representations of forgiveness during this period. Third, it brings into focus the political dimension of forgiveness discourses. That is to say, in Dombey and Son, the lexicon of forgiveness, with its emphasis on remorse and


A Literary History of Reconciliation

moral self-transformation, confers on gender hierarchies a form of spiritual legitimacy, cloaking patriarchal authority in the language of religion. As we will see, Dickens’s novel invites its readers to be moved by Florence Dombey’s forgiveness of her abusive father, as well as by her explicitly self-humiliating and seemingly paradoxical plea for forgiveness from him, and to celebrate this double forgiveness as a return to normative gender roles. Part of the cultural work which Dombey and Son performs through its representation of forgiveness, therefore, is to confirm dominant gender ideologies, even as it puts both the problems built into patriarchy and the political ramifications of forgiveness on prominent display. A similarly close link between forgiveness, hierarchy and male power informs Pamela, with Mr B. claiming forgiveness as an aristocratic prerogative, and Pamela habitually begging humbly for his forgiveness. As we will see, Pamela also tries to break from this mould, employing the language of remorse and forgiveness in an attempt to undermine and reform both gender hierarchies and class relations. Mr B. comes to acknowledge his own need for forgiveness, and it is ultimately Pamela who forgives Mr B. after he shows remorse for his treatment of her. Yet while remorse-based forgiveness, in Richardson’s novel, has the power to transform the gender and class hierarchies which Mr B. initially took for granted, this transformation is precarious and temporary. Mr B. ultimately re-appropriates the language of forgiveness, once again enlisting it in the service of male power. Both Pamela and Dombey and Son present forgiveness as a female virtue and as a necessary antidote to the problems inherent in patriarchal and class hierarchies. Both novels are deeply alert to the destructiveness of male authority, and to the gender and class hierarchies which it underpins, yet they also locate the solution to the problem of male authority in female forgivingness. While this solution ultimately works to reinscribe the very gender hierarchies which both novels expose as unjust, it is also borne precisely from their thoroughgoing exposure of the inadequacies of male characters. Both Mr B. and Dombey, as dysfunctional authority figures, are ultimately incapable of transforming themselves, and are dependent for their redemption on a female deus ex machina. Both novels, in other words, present male authority as so deeply compromised that it can only be redeemed by forgiving, and therefore self-humiliating, women. Indeed, the idealization of forgiving women in Pamela and Dombey and Son is a direct consequence of the often radical critique of masculinity in both novels. In this sense, male authority, in these two works, is ultimately sustained by the very crises which it generates.

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


Caleb Williams is more pessimistic than both Pamela and Dombey and Son about the possibility of transforming male authority, and about the political meaning and efficacy of forgiveness discourses. In Caleb Williams, the language of forgiveness is instrumental in sustaining the hierarchical social order which Godwin indicts, reinforcing a complex set of political assumptions about who has a right to feel injured and who has a right to grant or withhold forgiveness. These assumptions, moreover, are so deeply internalized even by the oppressed themselves that any decisive social transformation seems impossible. In Godwin, remorse, far from being framed as a sign of positive moral self-transformation, is an emotion felt by the powerless before the powerful, and therefore functions as an agent of oppression. Social change, Godwin’s novel suggests, would require a thoroughgoing transformation of existing reconciliation paradigms. In Caleb Williams, such a transformation remains at best a distant possibility. Bleak House, finally, offers a rare example of a form of forgiveness that seems to escape from the power paradigms that dominate my other three case studies: Sir Leicester Dedlock’s spontaneous and unconditional forgiveness of Lady Honoria’s premarital past as a ‘fallen woman’. Yet Sir Leicester’s forgiveness comes too late and fails to undo the damage caused by the patriarchal values which Lady Dedlock has internalized, and which she tragically – if also understandably – assumes are shared by her husband. In Bleak House, unproblematic forgiveness is offered only by the marginal Mrs Rouncewell, to her son George. This reconfirms the idea that forgiveness is a primarily female virtue, and it is partly for this reason that, in Bleak House, the power of forgiveness to transform existing gender and class hierarchies is ultimately limited.

Forgiveness and gender hierarchies in Pamela The language of forgiveness is pervasive in Pamela. Richardson’s novel contains no less than 137 instances of various forms of the verb ‘to forgive’ or its related noun ‘forgiveness’, 25 instances of the verb ‘to reconcile’ or its cognate noun ‘reconciliation’, and 44 instances of ‘pardon’ as a verb or noun.4 Indeed, the concept of forgiveness is fundamental to the plot of Pamela, and to the ways in which it examines its crucial themes of class and gender relations. As we will see, ‘forgiveness’ functions as one of the central pillars on which rests the social order in which Pamela is initially trapped, and against which she in part rebels. Especially in the novel’s first volume, Mr B. assumes that, as a male aristocrat, he has a unique right to feel wronged or hurt, especially by those placed beneath


A Literary History of Reconciliation

him – a category which in fact comprises all characters except Mr B. himself. This also means that forgiveness is his unique prerogative: others must beg for his forgiveness, which he has the authority to grant or withhold. It is unthinkable to him that he himself should be guilty of any wrongdoing, or in need, therefore, of forgiveness. Both Mr B.’s other servants and Pamela herself, moreover, have internalized this aspect of Mr B.’s power. Pamela is strongly predisposed to feel guilty about actions or utterances that might be construed as defiant or rebellious, and she asks with almost ritual frequency for Mr B.’s forgiveness. It is part of Richardson’s daring ideological project in Pamela to try and invert the political meaning of forgiveness. The great moral and political transformation which Mr B. undergoes especially in the novel’s second volume is that he comes to experience guilt and a sense of remorse over his treatment of Pamela, and acknowledges his own need for forgiveness from her. Yet this radical inversion of the politics of forgiveness, if it is fully realized at all, is not sustained. Once Mr B. and Pamela are married, the forgiveness scenarios that initially pertained between them are re-established, albeit in subtly altered forms. Whereas the language of forgiveness is initially employed by Mr B. to justify his libertine power over Pamela’s body, it eventually comes to legitimize the gender hierarchies of marriage. Indeed, the efficacy of the discourse of forgiveness in sustaining these hierarchies is ultimately strengthened by the fact that it has been cleansed of any associations with Mr B.’s exploitative, libertine sexuality. In this respect, Pamela stages a whitewashing of the politics of forgiveness by incorporating it into the institution of marriage. Moreover, Pamela herself comes to adopt the role of benevolent aristocrat, ready to forgive her inferiors for their wrongdoings – a position similar to that occupied by Mr B. in the novel’s first half. In the epilogue to Pamela, Richardson praises the ‘forgiving spirit’ and ‘generosity’ displayed by his heroine after her ‘exaltation’ (502), suggesting that it is because of her forgiving nature that she deserves her newly acquired aristocratic status. In Richardson’s novel, therefore, forgiveness ultimately not only retains its power to legitimize gender hierarchies, but also continues to provide a rationale for class differences. The relation between forgiveness and hierarchy comes to the fore in Pamela’s very first letter, in which she relates how Mr B. catches her attempting to hide her letter ‘in my Bosom’ (12): He seeing me frighted, said, smiling, Who have you been writing to, Pamela? – I said, in my Fright, Pray your Honour forgive me! – Only to my Father and Mother. He said, Well then, Let me see how you are come on in your Writing!

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


O how I was sham’d! – He, in my Fright, took it, without saying more, and read it quite thro’, and then gave it me again; – and I said, Pray your Honour forgive me; – yet I know not for what. (12)

As John Dussinger notes, in this passage ‘Pamela repeatedly begs forgiveness as if she had committed a crime’.5 As far as Mr B. is concerned, this might well be the case, given his preoccupation, throughout volume I, with the effect that Pamela’s letters might have on his reputation. Pamela herself is intuitively aware of Mr B.’s sensitivity on this issue, reassuring him that her letters will be read only by her parents, and feeling an instinctive guilt and sense of shame about the act of writing about her life in Mr B.’s service. That she claims not to know why she asks for forgiveness underscores the extent to which her sense of guilt vis-à-vis Mr B. escapes her conscious control. Her readiness to beg for Mr B.’s forgiveness is an index, therefore, of her subjection to him – even if she is also, to some degree, aware of this. Even though Pamela might legitimately take exception to Mr B.’s invasion of her privacy, it is Mr B. who is seen by both characters as potentially wronged by Pamela’s actions, and who is in a position to be lenient and forgiving towards her. The extent to which forgiveness is emblematic of Mr B.’s power becomes starkly clear in Letter XI, in which he embraces and kisses Pamela in the summerhouse, restraining her when she tries to escape. Angered at her response, he claims he was only testing her discretion: ‘It was only to try you: If you can keep this Matter secret, you’ll give me the better Opinion of your Prudence’ (24). He adds a threat which simultaneously holds out the promise of forgiveness: ‘I charge you say nothing of what is past, and all shall be well, and I’ll forgive you’ (24). Mr B. sees Pamela’s refusal to be sexually available to him as an offence for which he is nevertheless willing to forgive on the condition of secrecy. A similar moment occurs in Letter XXV, when Mr B. hides in Mrs Jervis’s closet and gropes Pamela (‘I found his Hand in my Bosom’ [63]). Afterwards he ‘charged Mrs. Jervis, and promised to forgive her for what she had said and done, if she would conceal the matter’ (64). Mrs Jervis’s efforts to protect Pamela are seen by Mr B. as a form of insubordination, which, again, he is prepared to forgive on the condition of silence. Indeed, in her pleas with Mr B. on Pamela’s behalf, Mrs Jervis herself employs the language of forgiveness, asking her employer to ‘pity and forgive the poor girl; she is but a girl, and her virtue is very dear to her’ (35). Likewise, when Mr B. threatens to dismiss Pamela, Mr Longman, the house steward, intercedes on her behalf, addressing first Pamela and then Mr B. as follows:


A Literary History of Reconciliation We all love you dearly; and pray down of your Knees, and ask his Honour Pardon, and we will all become Pleaders in a Body, and I, and Mrs. Jervis too, at the Head of it, to beg his Honour’s Pardon, and to continue you, at least till his Honour marries. […] Dear Sir, forgive her: The poor Thing prays for you; she prays for us all! She owns her Fault; yet won’t be forgiven! I profess I know not what to make of it. (74)

The collective pleading for Pamela’s pardoning to which Mr Longman refers is a ritual confirmation of the power relations that govern Mr B.’s household. The servants demonstrate their subjection in a ritual gesture of supplication, implicitly casting Mr B.’s power over them as the most pressing argument in favour of forgiveness. As Mr Longman emphasizes, this also means that Mr B. has an aristocratic obligation to forgive, especially since Pamela has acknowledged her fault. Yet none of the characters, including Pamela herself, question the assumption that the fault does indeed lie with Pamela: ‘I will say, on my bended Knees (and so I kneeled down) that I have been a very faulty, and a very ingrateful Creature to the best of Masters!’ (74). In a later letter, Pamela prays to God to ‘forgive me my Rashness’ in condemning Mr B. as a ‘wicked Violator of all the Laws of God and Man’ (98). Mr B. enjoys a semidivine status, therefore, in that he and God are the two entities to whom Pamela directs her pleas for forgiveness. Indeed, Mr B. himself repeatedly censures Pamela for what he sees as her ‘rashness’ in resisting him, and Pamela echoes this term in her prayer. Near the end of volume I, Mr B. explains his conditions for pardoning Pamela in a manner that underscores the analogies between the forgiveness which he may grant her and the forgiveness granted by God to sinners: Pardon you! said he, what, when you don’t repent? – When you have the Boldness to justify yourself in your Fault? Why don’t you say, you never will again offend me? […] What then, said he, do you beg Pardon for? Where is the Promise of Amendment, for which I should forgive you? (210–211)

As in scenarios of divine forgiveness, Mr B. requires repentance of sin on Pamela’s part and a promise to mend her ways. The spiritual language of forgiveness underpins his power over her, turning her refusal to comply with his (sexual) wishes into a form of sin. The alacrity with which Pamela begs for her employer’s forgiveness seems in part calculated. This is also suggested by the following passage, later in the novel, in which she asks permission to leave Mr B.’s household:

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


Yesterday my Master, after he came from Hunting, sent for me. I went with great Terror; for I expected he would storm, and be in a fine Passion with me for my Freedom of Speech before: So I was resolved to begin first, with Submission, to disarm his Anger; and I fell upon my Knees as soon as I saw him; and I said, For God’s Sake, good Sir, and for the Sake of my dear good Lady your Mother, who recommended me to you with her last Words, let me beg you to forgive me all my Faults, as you hope to be forgiven yourself; And only grant me this Favour, the last I have to ask you, that you will let me depart your House with Peace and Quietness of Mind[.] (82)

It is tempting to argue that Pamela is putting on a performance of submissiveness, strategically supplicating with Mr B., and begging for his forgiveness, in the hope of securing her liberty from his advances. Yet Pamela’s display of submissiveness also has the effect of confirming the power relations between her and Mr B., and of reinforcing the notion that her fate is in his hands. Pamela’s request to leave Mr B.’s service is pre-empted, therefore, by the submissive language of supplication and forgiveness in which it is couched. Moreover, it is precisely Pamela’s wish to leave his household, with the attendant danger to his reputation, that incurs Mr B.’s wrath, and for which she needs his forgiveness. Towards the end of volume I, he claims that he ‘cannot yet forgive [Pamela] – She has given me great Disturbance; has brought great Discredit upon me, both abroad and at home […] – And surely I ought not to forgive her all this!’ (187). While Pamela’s show of submissiveness is successful in mollifying Mr B., it does not lead him to grant her permission to leave, but only seems to intensify his sexual desires for her: ‘Shut the Door, Pamela, and come to me in my Closet’ (82). Indeed, there is a noteworthy correlation between Pamela’s abject supplication with Mr B. on the one hand and her enchantment with the world of luxury and wealth which he represents on the other. Once she has entered Mr B.’s closet, she notices that it is ‘full of rich Pictures’, that it opens out onto a ‘private Garden’, and that Mr B. is seated ‘upon a rich Settee’ – all the while maintaining her posture of supplication, ‘cre[eping] towards him with trembling Feet’ (83).6 As was already suggested by her condemnation, quoted earlier, of Mr B. as a ‘wicked Violator of all the Laws of God and Man’ (98), Pamela also deploys the language of forgiveness to challenge Mr B.’s power, placing herself in a position in which she refuses to forgive her employer. Such a challenge to Mr B.’s power is also implicitly present in her very first letter, quoted above, when she writes that she ‘know[s] not for what’ she repeatedly asks her employer’s forgiveness, and perhaps registered most explicitly in her famous question to Mrs Jewkes: ‘pray, said I, […] how came I to be his property?’ (126). After the scene in the


A Literary History of Reconciliation

summer-house, she writes to her parents that it would be a form of incitement to remain in Mr B.’s service: ‘It is an Encouragement to a person to proceed, if one puts one’s self in the Way of it, when one can help it; and it shews one can forgive what in short ought not to be forgiven’ (39). Here, it is Mr B., rather than Pamela or one of her fellow-servants, who has committed an act that may or may not be forgiven. This reversal of the politics of forgiveness is pivotal to Pamela as a whole in that Mr B. eventually comes to accept the idea that he has wronged Pamela. He feels remorse and comes to see himself as in need of her forgiveness. The following paragraphs examine this process in more detail. Pamela initially thinks of Mr B., his aiding-and-abetting housekeeper Mrs Jewkes and Mr Colbrand as incapable of feeling remorse, or of experiencing the fellow-feeling which gives rise to it. Only her suicide would make them realize what suffering they have inflicted on her: These wicked Wretches, who now have no Remorse, no Pity on me, will then be mov’d to lament their Misdoings; and when they see the dead Corpse of the unhappy Pamela dragg’d out to these slopy Banks, and lying breathless at their Feet, they will find that Remorse to wring their obdurate Hearts, which, now, has no Place there! – And my Master, my angry Master, will then forget his Resentments, and say, O this is the unhappy Pamela! that I have so causelesly persecuted and destroy’d! (172–73)

The first stirrings of remorse in Mr B. occur when Pamela faints after the nearrape in her bedroom, with Mr B. bizarrely cross-dressing as the maid Nan. When she regains consciousness, Mr B. shows concern for her well-being and leaves her with the following words: And now, Pamela, said he, give me but your Hand, and say you forgive me, and I will leave you to your Repose. I held out my trembling Hand, which he vouchsafed to kiss, and I said, God forgive you, Sir, as you have been just in my Distress; and as you will be just to what you promise! And he withdrew, with a Countenance of Remorse, as I hoped[.] (205)

It is presumably his remorse over his actions which moves Mr B. to see himself, for the first time, as needing forgiveness from Pamela. Yet he does not ask for but demands forgiveness (‘say you forgive me’) as a condition for allowing her to rest. Pamela does not heed his command, leaving forgiveness instead to God and undercutting in this way the forgiveness hierarchies which Mr B. takes for granted. Mr B., she implies, is not in a position to demand forgiveness, nor is she herself in a position to grant it.

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


Mr B. arrives at a more thoroughgoing re-evaluation of his relation to Pamela, and of the politics of forgiveness which help to underpin it, when he has read her journal. This is made clear at two moments early in the novel’s second volume. Sitting with Pamela by the pond in which she contemplated drowning herself, Mr B. confesses that he has found her narrative to be ‘a very moving Tale’ (240). As Michael McKeon notes, Mr B. is affected not primarily by the dry facts of Pamela’s account, but rather by ‘her viewpoint’.7 ‘You have touch’d me sensibly with your mournful Relation’, he explains to Pamela, adding that he is moved especially by her ‘sweet Reflections upon it’ (241). It is also the reading of Pamela’s narrative that leads Mr B. to acknowledge that he has wronged her, and to ask for her forgiveness: ‘Come, kiss me, said he, and tell me you forgive me for rushing you into so much Danger and Distress’ (241). Mr B. continues to ‘entertain [him]self with [Pamela’s] Journal’ (250), and his extended reading experience ultimately produces his second, most overt plea for forgiveness since he became a reader of Pamela’s journal: ‘let me see you can forgive the Man who loves you more than himself ’ (251). The principal agent of Mr B.’s remorse, and of his concomitant moral transformation, then, is fiction itself: Mr B. reads the fictional journal which we ourselves have been reading. The reader of Pamela is implicitly placed in a position similar to that of Mr B., invited to respond to Pamela’s plight in a similarly sympathetic manner. Mr B., and the reader with him, comes to see Pamela as a fully fledged person, capable of suffering and endowed with interiority. As William Warner notes, ‘Mr B.’s reform models the reform Richardson wants for all novel readers.’8 Mr B. comes to understand, moreover, that sentience and interiority are not the reserve of male aristocrats. As Lynn Hunt writes, ‘The epistolary novel showed […] that all selves were in some sense equal because all were alike in their possession of interiority. The exchange of letters turn the servant girl Pamela […] into a model of proud autonomy and individuality rather than a stereotype of the downtrodden.’9 According to Hunt, the epistolary novel therefore played an important role in the conception and disseminating of a notion of universal human rights. The experience of reading Pamela’s journal undeniably transforms Mr B. He acquires a capacity for remorse and empathy that was hitherto at best dormant, and perceives that he needs her forgiveness. Yet his understanding of the politics of forgiveness also remains to an important degree unchanged. This, in turn, begs the question of whether the power relations between Mr B. and Pamela ultimately undergo any fundamental transformation, and of whether Richardson’s epistolary novel can indeed be said to present ‘all selves’ as ‘equal’.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

The issue of Pamela’s forgiveness of Mr B. was also noted, with some disapproval, in an anonymous poem that appeared in the London Magazine of May 1741: Tho’ odd the question may be thought From one so very modest, Yet that she would forgive the fault To me seems much the oddest.10

That Pamela forgives Mr B. in fact has to be inferred – most importantly, of course, from the fact that she marries him. There is no moment in the novel at which she explicitly forgives her employer. In spite of this, Mr B. certainly manages to create a situation in which Pamela has no other choice but to forgive him. He frames his climactic plea for forgiveness, quoted earlier, rather as a test of Pamela’s character, that is to say, of her ability to forgive: ‘If you are the generous Pamela I imagine you to be, […] let me see you can forgive the Man who loves you more than himself ’ (250–251). Seen in this light, it is fitting that Mr B.’s first plea for forgiveness after reading Pamela’s journal is in fact a command: ‘Tell me you forgive me’ (241). Pamela forgives Mr B. not in the first instance because he acknowledges, in an unambiguously remorseful statement, the wrongs he has inflicted on her, but because, now that he loves her, he is entitled to her forgiveness, and because, as a woman, she is expected to be forgiving. As I noted earlier in this chapter, Richardson’s epilogue celebrates Pamela’s ‘forgiving Spirit’, and it is in the matter of forgiveness that the reformed Mr B. can be seen as a mouthpiece for Richardson himself. In order to live up to the ideal which she represents for Mr B. and Richardson alike, and therefore in order to merit her social elevation, Pamela has to forgive her future husband for his actions as an aristocratic libertine. On this reading, Pamela’s forgiveness of Mr B. is not so much ‘odd’, as the anonymous eighteenth-century poet would have it, but inevitable – dictated by the gender norms which Pamela ultimately champions. The role of forgiving woman, then, is one reserved for Pamela by male figures. In addition to this, Mr B.’s sense of culpability immediately upon reading Pamela’s journal varies in intensity. For example, the contrition which he feels lessens considerably when Pamela again asks him to allow her to return to her parents and he leaves ‘in great Wrath’ (242), even though he had asked for her forgiveness only two pages earlier. When he later does allow Pamela to ‘go honest’ (244) – that is to say, with her virginity intact – she falls on her knees in gratitude in another moment of self-abasement: ‘O thank you, thank your Honour a Million of Times’ (244). In a letter to Pamela written after she has – temporarily – left his household, Mr B. assures her that he ‘can forgive’ (247) her

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


since she has been discrete about what has happened between them, ‘forbearing to expose me any more than is necessary for your own Justification’ (247). While this signals a change on Mr B.’s part in that he now actually claims to be able to forgive Pamela (although this forgiveness is only presented as a possibility), what remains unaltered is his assumption that he is the wronged party. It is only after this statement that Mr B. announces that he will ‘allow [him]self to be accused by [Pamela]’ (248), as well as ‘accus[ing him]self ’ (248), his confession of guilt in part defused by his prior claim that he will forgive her. It is this letter, moreover, which makes Pamela realize that she loves Mr B., suggesting that her half-suppressed amorous feelings for her employer are fully unlocked not only by his self-accusation, but also by his newly acquired willingness to forgive her for what he continues, implicitly, to see as her obstinacy. It remains to be seen, then, whether Pamela ever fully subverts the political meaning of forgiveness. Indeed, the dynamics of forgiveness that initially obtained between Pamela and Mr B. are re-established once they are married. This becomes clear, for example, from Mr B.’s perorations on marriage towards the end of the novel. Among the forty-eight rules which Pamela distills from her husband’s ‘awful Lecture’ (448) are the following: ‘That a Wife take care how she ascribe supererogatory Merit to herself; so as to take the Faults of others upon her’ and ‘That his Imperfections must not be a Plea for hers’ (451). A wife, in other words, is expected to behave with a higher degree of moral perfection than her husband, with the aim of being able to compensate for the latter’s shortcomings. The theological language in this passage is strongly linked to the issue of forgiveness: ‘supererogatory Merit’, in Roman Catholic theology, refers to a ‘surplus of good works’ which ‘may be credited to others to make up for their deficiencies’ and can therefore help others to obtain divine forgiveness.11 This theological vocabulary, moreover, not only invests Mr B.’s dictum with spiritual authority, but also obscures the gender hierarchies on which Mr B.’s rules are obviously built. Pamela is to think of these rules as issued not by a figure of authority, but by a fellow sinner, whose sinfulness is in fact greater than her own, and who is both in need of, and entitled to, the benefits of her supposed moral superiority. At the same time, Pamela is to think of her own imperfections as more serious, and less easily forgiven, than those of her husband: the primary significance of her husband’s shortcomings is that they cannot excuse her own. In her relatively detached and at times downright sceptical reflections on these rules, Pamela notes that ‘I think it is well if we can bear our own!’ (451). Yet as Jocelyn Harris notes, such ironic comments only form a ‘flicker of resistance’, her defiance at this moment remaining ‘purely private’ and without repercussions for her actual behaviour.12


A Literary History of Reconciliation

The list of marital rules which Pamela draws up comes after a prolonged conflict between Mr B. and his sister, Lady Davers, who initially refuses to accept  – and indeed to forgive – her brother’s inter-class marriage. The manner in which the two eventually reconcile, as well as Pamela’s role in their reconciliation, demonstrates the degree to which the language of forgiveness continues to shore up Mr B.’s authority even after his reformation. Mr B. initially refuses to forgive his sister for revealing his past seduction, impregnation and abandonment of Sally Godfrey. She subsequently announces her intention to leave and break with her brother: ‘Since I cannot be forgiven, I will try to forget I have a Brother’ (435). In an attempt at mediation between Mr B. and Lady Davers, Pamela adopts a role similar to that of Eve in Paradise Lost, taking on herself the offences committed by Lady Davers: ‘May I, Sir, said I, beg all your Anger on myself, and to be reconciled to your good Sister’ (435). When his anger does not abate, she ‘took hold of his Knees’ (435), again recalling Milton’s suppliant Eve, and begs for forgiveness: ‘Forgive me, good Sir; you see I am not so hardy! I cannot bear your Displeasure!’ (435). Mr B. does not at first applaud his wife’s attempts at mediation, but is enraged with her for intruding on his quarrel with his sister, and seeing him in his ‘Tumults’ (435): ‘How dare you approach me, without Leave, when you see me thus disturb’d!’ (434). After this, it is Lady Davers’s turn to intercede with her brother on Pamela’s behalf, moved as she now is by Pamela’s generosity: ‘Pardon Pamela, if you won’t me; for she has committed no Offence’ […] only [F]orgive Pamela; ’tis all I ask! (435). The use of the term ‘pardon’ here in fact undermines the claim that Pamela has committed no offence: even if she is innocent, she can only be reconciled with her husband through an act of pardoning. This necessarily implies a crime on her part – that of seeing her husband in his ire. Mr B. sees his own sense of injury in terms of the hierarchy between himself and especially his sister. In offending Mr B., Lady Davers lowers her status, the hierarchical gap between them widened: ‘You have fallen very low with me’ (436). This in turn places her in a position in which she has to supplicate with him, or to be supplicated for by Pamela, or to supplicate on Pamela’s behalf. Mr B. is eventually moved to forgiveness, both of Pamela and his sister, by the prior reconciliation between them: ‘Your last kind Blessing to my Pamela, I cannot stand!’ (436). Yet the scene ends with Lady Davers reminding Pamela, half-jocularly, of Mr B’s touchiness and proneness to take offence: ‘But if you offend, the Lord have Mercy upon you! – You see how it is by poor me! – And yet, I never knew him forgive so soon’ (437). Pamela responds, in a similar vein, saying that she ‘had offended before I knew where I was’ (437). Crucially, Mr

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


B.’s forgiveness of Pamela is conditional upon her respecting his temper and internalizing the urgent need to avoid incurring his anger in the future: ‘I’ll forgive you too, if you don’t again make my Displeasure so light a thing to you’ (437). Mr B. takes especial offence at any suggestion that his ‘Displeasure’ is taken with less than absolute seriousness. Mr B. is eventually moved to forgiveness by the forgiving spirit shown by Pamela and Lady Davers. Yet Pamela’s intercession with her husband is fraught with danger in that he would ‘much rather have renounced [Lady Davers], at that time, than have been reconciled to her’ (442). While Pamela’s pleas with her husband are a necessary enabler of reconciliation, therefore, the suggestion that he should ‘pardon’ his sister while he is still consumed with anger is also a dangerous infringement on his authority. Indeed, as Mr B. explains to Pamela, the precise timing of such intercession is crucial: ‘Had you not broken in upon me, while my Anger lasted, but stay’d till I had come to you, or sent to desire your Company, you’d have seen none of this; but that affectionate Behaviour, that, I doubt not, you’ll always merit’ (443). In other words, Pamela would have been spared her husband’s anger if she had been more precisely attuned to its ebb and flow. The lengthy reconciliation scene between Mr B., Pamela and Lady Davers has the paradoxical effect of simultaneously exposing and reinscribing the gender politics of marriage. While Mr B.’s irascibility is put on prominent display, the reader is also asked to applaud Pamela and Lady Davers’s submissive pleas for his forgiveness. Indeed, in their supplications on each other’s behalf, both come to embody the female ‘forgiving spirit’ celebrated in Richardson’s epilogue. Pamela’s intercession with her husband on Lady Davers’s behalf is part of the more general role of forgiver which she adopts after her marriage. In addition to her husband and his sister, she also forgives servants who in some way colluded in Mr B.’s assaults on Pamela’s virtue. The most prominent example of this is Pamela’s almost casual, unconditional forgiveness of one of her chief tormentors, Mrs Jewkes: ‘I can freely forgive poor Mrs Jewkes, and wish her happy’ (359). The phrase, which foreshadows Jane Eyre’s forgiveness of Mrs Reed, is repeated almost verbatim in her forgiveness of Lady Davers’s maid, Mrs Worden: ‘Mrs Worden asked my pardon, in a good deal of confusion, for the part she had acted against me[.] I said, I took nothing amiss; and very freely forgave her’ (438). Similarly, John Arnold is consumed with remorse for having allowed Mr B. to read Pamela’s letters and ‘hopes he shall yet be forgiven’ (462). He is indeed forgiven by Pamela, who models her own act of forgiveness on what she sees as her husband’s generosity: ‘Well may I forgive, that have so generous an Example’ (462). As a result of this forgiveness, John Arnold is reinstated as Mr B. and


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Pamela’s servant, a turn of events which he accepts gratefully: ‘I now have the Joy of my Soul, in serving you both’ (462). Pamela’s ready forgiveness of Arnold strengthens and legitimizes her position as aristocratic mistress. A final, instructive example of Pamela’s new role as forgiver occurs when she pleads with Mr B. to reinstate servants whom he fired for voicing their concerns over Mr B.’s treatment of Pamela in a letter to Lady Davers. Once again, Pamela begs Mr B. as a ‘humble petitioner […] upon my knees’ (357). To be sure, Mr B.’s response is to ‘raise [Pamela] up’, saying that ‘my beloved Pamela has too often been in this suppliant Posture to me, to permit it any more’ (357), even though this logically requires Pamela’s prior self-abasement. As we have seen, Richardson’s novel strains to transcend the hierarchies between Pamela and Mr B., and the pivotal role within those hierarchies played by forgiveness, with the latter explicitly rejecting, in this passage, Pamela’s customary role as suppliant. But this transcendence remains intermittent at best, and Pamela and Mr B. frequently relapse into hierarchical patters of supplication, pardoning and forgiveness. A crucial reason for this is that Richardson is ultimately reluctant to relinquish an ideal of women not only as forgiving, especially of their husbands, but also as deeply aware of their own shortcomings, and therefore eager to ask for forgiveness, especially from their husbands. As we will see in the next section, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams examines a similarly hierarchical forgiveness paradigm, but with a more specific focus on class relations.

Masters, servants and forgiveness in Caleb Williams William Godwin’s great political novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams is pervaded by the language of insult, injury, remorse, expiation and forgiveness. Indeed, the oppressive social order dissected in Caleb Williams is governed and maintained by structures of both retaliation and forgiveness. In Godwin’s novel, the right to avenge perceived wrongs is an aristocratic prerogative, as is the right to experience a sense of injury in the first place. Vengeance functions as a marker of a male aristocratic identity constructed around the concepts of honour and chivalry. Conversely, the decision to forego retaliation is one that male aristocrats can make at their own discretion. Aristocratic characters are under no obligation to forgive others, especially not those of lower social rank. If aristocratic characters do forgive those placed beneath them, it is as a form of clemency that confirms and even intensifies their power over subaltern classes, who now owe them a debt of gratitude.

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


By contrast, the subaltern classes in Caleb Williams, represented especially by Emily Melvile and Caleb himself, are not entitled to injury or resentment, nor is vengeance theirs. Rather, they are expected to feel remorse for any offence they might have caused to their superiors – that is to say, for any failure to behave in a sufficiently deferential manner. This remorse is an emotion that is not so much forced upon them, moreover, but which they experience spontaneously, even in scenarios where they are victim rather than perpetrator. This is especially true for Caleb, who feels intense guilt over his attempts to expose Falkland’s crime, and is remorseful even after Falkland confesses, seemingly taking on the latter’s guilt. This capacity for remorse is an index of his deep loyalty to Falkland, and of the extent to which he has internalized his own subjection to his master. On Godwin’s analysis, in other words, the asymmetrical power relations of late eighteenth-century English society are sustained by a network of assumptions about whose sense of injury and feelings of resentment are significant and valid, whose responsibility it is to be remorseful, and who has a right both to retaliate wrongs and to decide when wrongs can be forgiven. Godwin’s novel suggests, moreover, that these assumptions are so deeply ingrained in the minds of the ruling and subaltern classes alike that any effort to transform or transcend them faces almost insuperable obstacles. It is made clear as early as the second chapter that ‘chivalry’ is a central pillar of Falkland’s sense of aristocratic identity. His chivalrous self is built around an ‘acute sense of injury and insult’ and a corresponding belief that ‘an indignity cannot be expiated but with blood’ (10). Falkland honed his exquisite sensitivity to insult during a prolonged stay in Italy, presented by the novel’s initial narrator Mr Collins as ‘the fountain of chivalry’ (10). It is also in Italy that a conflict arises between Falkland and an equally chivalrous Italian fellow-aristocrat, Count Malvesi, who accuses him of conducting an affair with Malvesi’s lover, Lady Lucretia. Falkland manages to resolve the conflict amicably, but only because it has remained private. As he explains to Malvesi: The laws of honour are in the utmost degree rigid, and there was reason to fear that, however anxious I were to be your friend, I might be obliged to be your murderer. […] It was lucky however that in our interview of yesterday you found me alone, and that accident by that means threw the management of the affair into my disposal. […] But if the challenge had been public, the proofs I had formerly given of courage would not have excused my present moderation; and, though desirous to have avoided the combat, it would not have been in my power. (14–15)


A Literary History of Reconciliation

The passage shows how strongly Falkland identifies with what he understands to be the unbending ‘laws of honour’. His words can be usefully read in terms of Judith Butler’s understanding of gender as performative:13 there is an instability at the core of Falkland’s chivalrous masculinity, in that his reputation for being a man of honour, no matter how formidable, will be destroyed the moment he fails to avenge even one perceived insult. Chivalrous masculine honour, therefore, is a precarious achievement that has to be performed and re-affirmed over and over again. This intensifies, of course, the potential for violent conflict built into aristocratic masculinity, and Godwin’s novel examines the massively destructive consequences of this. There is a clearly Burkean resonance to Falkland’s preoccupation with chivalrous honour. Edmund Burke saw a masculine readiness to avenge injury as a distinctive characteristic of the ‘age of chivalry’ whose demise he laments in the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). His famous description of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette being dragged from their palace culminates in his shock that no ‘men of honour’ leap to the royal couple’s defence: ‘I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.’14 The Burkean idea that chivalrous masculinity is a force for good, and an agent of social cohesion, is examined by Godwin through the figure of Falkland. Falkland’s chivalry manifests itself not only in a sensitivity to dishonour, but also in a profound sense of compassionate responsibility for those placed beneath him, and a concomitant, paradoxical effort to curb the aristocratic vengefulness of his ‘nearest neighbour’ (15) and antagonist, the tyrannical squire Barnabas Tyrrel. Falkland, in other words, endeavours to be a benevolent, reflective aristocrat, and to live up to the idealized image presented by Collins in the novel’s opening chapter: ‘His […] was the gaiety of the hero and the scholar. It was chastened with reflexion and sensibility, and never lost sight either of good taste or humanity’ (8). Falkland’s benevolent chivalry manifests itself on various occasions. He intercedes with Tyrrel on Hawkins’s behalf, for example, and shows heroic resolve during a village fire, when, ‘by his presence of mind, by his indefatigable humanity and incessant exertions, he save[s] three-fourths of the village from destruction’ (54). Among the characters whom Falkland rescues from the fire is Emily Melvile. Emily is also saved by him when Grimes, whom she is forced to marry by Tyrrel, attempts to rape her. Falkland’s attempts to intercede with Tyrrel hinge on the issue of forgiveness. Tyrrel is furious with his tenant farmer Hawkins, who refuses to let Tyrrel claim his son as a servant. While Tyrrel is described by Collins as having ‘despotic and unforgiving propensities’ (68), and insists on absolute deference from his social

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


inferiors, Falkland appeals to his capacity for forgiveness: ‘Poor fellow! [Hawkins] has suffered almost all that human nature can endure. Let your forgiveness upon this occasion be the earnest of good neighbourhood and friendship between you and me’ (46). Tyrrel counters that he will not ‘forgive the insolence of my own creature’ (47): his godlike power to make and unmake others means he has no obligation to temper his resentment against them. As he says to Hawkins, ‘I made you what you are’ (39) and ‘I will tread you into paste!’ (41). Indeed, when Falkland entreats Tyrrel to ‘have some reason in your resentment’ (47), Tyrrel responds by insisting that ‘I will suffer nobody to stop the stream of my resentment; if I ever were to forgive him, it should be at nobody’s intreaty but my own’ (47). The term ‘forgiveness’, as it is used by both Tyrrel and Falkland, functions in the first instance as a political concept that serves to enshrine and legitimize existing social hierarchies. While Tyrrel sees his own position of power as exempting him from any obligation to forgive, Falkland feels that an aristocrat should be magnanimous towards those of lower social rank, even if they have caused offence: ‘Let us suppose that Hawkins has behaved unjustifiably, and insulted you. Is that an offence that can never be expiated?’ (47). While these two attitudes might seem opposites, they in fact rest on identical presuppositions about the socio-political meaning of forgiveness. Both Tyrrel and Falkland assume that forgiveness flows downward: it is granted by the powerful to the powerless, and is therefore more accurately labelled ‘clemency’, rather than ‘forgiveness’. Indeed, Falkland and Tyrrel’s use of the latter, religious term obfuscates the political nature of inter-class reconciliation in Caleb Williams. For Falkland, moreover, a magnanimous disposition helps to legitimate aristocratic authority: in showing clemency, an aristocrat demonstrates his sense of responsibility towards social inferiors and signals that he will not abuse his power. Falkland also understands that Tyrrel cannot be forced, but only entreated to show clemency: the decision whether or not to forgive is ultimately his alone, and therefore a key manifestation of his power. When, after her death, Falkland praises Emily Melvile for ‘her unresentful temper’ (92), he unwittingly affirms aristocratic assumptions about the politics of resentment. An absence of resentment, especially towards social superiors, is held up as a moral ideal for a powerless figure like Emily. Aristocrats, by contrast, have at most on obligation to moderate the resentment to which they are in principle entitled. The difference between the perspectives on ‘forgiveness’ espoused by Tyrrel and Falkland, therefore, is ultimately a matter of degree rather than kind: Tyrrel is a less magnanimous aristocrat than Falkland. As we will see,


A Literary History of Reconciliation

moreover, Falkland ultimately turns out to be just as unforgiving towards his servant Caleb as Tyrrel is towards Hawkins when what he sees as his own honour is at stake. Even when Tyrrel learns that Emily Melvile has died, and understands that he is responsible for her death, he still assumes that he is in a position to forgive, and can use his power to forgive as a barter. As he tells Mrs Hammond, ‘Emmy is not dead! I am sure – I hope – she is not dead! – Tell me that you have only been deceiving me, and I will forgive you every thing. – I will forgive her – I will take her into favour’ (89). After Emily’s death, Falkland explains to Tyrrel that he has not only fallen into deep, public disgrace, but that he should also feel intense, personal remorse over his machinations against her: Can you retire into solitude, and not see her pale and patient ghost rising to reproach you? Can you recollect her virtues, her innocence, her spotless manners, her unresentful temper, and not run distracted with remorse? Have you not killed her in the first bloom of her youth? Can you bear to think that she now lies mouldering in the grave through your cursed contrivance, that deserved a crown, ten thousand times more than you deserve to live? And do you expect that mankind will ever forget, or forgive such a deed? (92)

Falkland’s admonishment entails a dismantling of Tyrrel’s sense of aristocratic identity on two interrelated levels. First, he has utterly forfeited his public esteem; second, he is now in a position where he is in desperate need of forgiveness from others, rather than vice versa. It is this dual undermining of his position as aristocrat that drives Tyrrel, in the penultimate chapter of the novel’s first volume, to attack Falkland during one of the weekly village assemblies, striking him to the ground and ‘kick[ing] his prostrate enemy’ (93). The effect which this attack has on Falkland is a much intensified version of Tyrrel’s disgrace after Emily Melvile’s death: ‘He wished no doubt for annihilation, to lie down in eternal oblivion […] Horror, detestation, revenge, inexpressible longings to shake off the evil, and a persuasion that in this case all effort was powerless, must have filled his soul even to bursting’ (94). Even more strongly than Tyrrel, Falkland sees his aristocratic identity as synonymous with honour, and Tyrrel’s public attack is a form of dishonour so profound that it causes his self-understanding to unravel. It is also Falkland’s exquisite sensitivity to dishonour that renders reconciliation between him and Tyrrel impossible: he subsequently takes revenge on Tyrrel by secretly murdering him in a fit of rage, stabbing him from behind. This gross violation of the aristocratic honour code is further compounded when, in an effort to safeguard his reputation for chivalry,

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


Falkland shifts the blame for the murder onto Hawkins, the very tenant farmer whom he had attempted to protect from Tyrrel’s wrath. Volumes II and III of Caleb Williams trace Caleb’s growing suspicions about Falkland, and his attempts to expose his master, as well as Falkland’s efforts to destroy Caleb. Falkland believes that Caleb, in trying to satisfy his Gothic curiosity about his master’s secret, has placed himself beyond the pale of aristocratic forgiveness: You have sought to disclose the select and eternal secret of my soul. Because you have done that, I will never forgive you. I will remember it to my latest breath. The memory shall survive me, when my existence is no more. Do you think you are out of the reach of my power, because a court of justice has acquitted you? (269)

Like Tyrrel, Falkland feels that, as an aristocrat, he has the power to grant or withhold forgiveness from his social inferiors. On Falkland’s view, moreover, this power exceeds the authority of the law and points to his divine status as an aristocrat: At this moment you are surrounded with the engines of my vengeance, and before you are aware they will close up on you. You might as well think of escaping from the reach of the omnipresent God, as from mine! If you could touch so much as my finger, you should expiate it in hours and months and years of a torment of which as yet you have not the remotest idea! (140)

Falkland describes his own power over Caleb in the language of the divine, likening his ability to exact vengeance – to withhold forgiveness, or to impose expiation – to divine judgement. In this sense, he has become a magnified version of Tyrrel. Falkland succeeds in intimidating Caleb, in that the latter repeatedly feels deep remorse about his inquiries into Falkland’s hidden crime – even though, as a Gothic protagonist, he is unable to resist the urge to uncover his master’s secret. Caleb’s remorse shows how strongly he identifies with Falkland’s politics of injury. When, early in the novel’s second volume, Falkland confronts him about his secretly reading a letter to Falkland from Hawkins, Caleb’s response is revealing: ‘I feel, sir, answered I, how wrong I have been, and am ashamed that such a one as I should have given you all this trouble and displeasure’ (116). What exacerbates his offence, Caleb feels, is the fact that he has transgressed against a social superior. Indeed, in his own judgement, he deserves punishment for this, and will only be able to forgive himself for his transgression if Falkland


A Literary History of Reconciliation

punishes him: ‘For God’s sake, sir, turn me out of your house. Punish me in some way or other, that I may forgive myself. I am a foolish, wicked, despicable wretch. I confess, sir, I did read the letter’ (116). After this exchange, Caleb remains deeply conflicted about his inquisitiveness. On the one hand, he is convinced that ‘my offence had merely been a mistaken thirst of knowledge’; on the other hand, he claims that ‘such however it was, as to admit neither of forgiveness nor remission’ (130). It is unclear to what extent, at this point, Caleb himself shares this assessment, yet he is at the very least aware that Falkland will never forgive him. Moreover, the idea that transgressions against one’s superiors are unforgivable continues to haunt Caleb. For example, the letter of resignation which Caleb writes five chapters after his exchange with Falkland reiterates his combined sense of gratitude and self-incrimination: My heart is impressed with gratitude for your favours. I sincerely ask your forgiveness for the many errors of my conduct. I consider the treatment I have received under your roof as one almost uninterrupted scene of kindness and generosity. I shall never forget my obligations to you, and will never betray them. (148)

It is not only Falkland and Caleb who believe that Caleb’s transgressions against Falkland constitute a grave, even unforgivable violation of the bonds of loyalty between master and servant. When Caleb defends himself against accusations that he has robbed Falkland, asserting that Falkland has framed him, Mr Forester, Falkland’s brother-in-law, addresses Caleb as follows: ‘Wretch that you are, will nothing move you? Are you inaccessible to remorse?’ (168). In volume III, Caleb becomes the subject of a handbill – circulated at Falkland’s behest – that recounts the crimes of ‘the notorious housebreaker, Kit Williams’ (228). The disguised Caleb overhears an alehouse conversation about the handbill in which the idea is reiterated that Caleb committed an unforgivable offence by betraying his master: ‘I could forgive the fellow all his other robberies, but that he should have been so hardened as to break the house of his own master at last, that is too bad’ (228). If Caleb feels guilty about exposing Falkland, Falkland, too, is consumed by remorse over his crime. When Falkland offers to let Caleb go in exchange for a signed statement declaring Falkland’s innocence, Caleb is struck by the ‘undying remorse […] inscribed in legible characters upon his countenance’ (268): His visage was haggard, emaciated, and fleshless. His complexion was a dun and tarnished red, the colour uniform through every region of the face, and suggested the idea of its being burnt and parched by the eternal fire that burned

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


within him. […] Life seemed hardly to be the capable inhabitant of so woebegone and ghost-like a figure. (268)

If, as we have seen, Falkland sees dishonour as a form of self-annihilation, remorse has a similar ability to erase his very being. Although Falkland’s ‘uninterrupted and hourly remorse’ (269) causes him to suffer terribly, it produces no moral transformation on his part – it does not lead him to publicly acknowledge his crime, or to abandon his efforts to destroy Caleb. Indeed, Falkland’s remorse is interminable precisely because his preoccupation with honour prevents him from acting on it. Falkland and Caleb seem to be briefly reconciled at the end of the novel, when Falkland unexpectedly throws himself into Caleb’s arms and confesses his guilt.15 Yet this reconciliation is fraught with tensions and internal contradictions. For Caleb, Falkland’s confession is not a moment of triumph, nor do he and Falkland arrive at a shared understanding of their reconciliation. Caleb feels intensely guilty for having forced Falkland, as he sees it, to confess his crime: Atrocious, execrable wretch that I have been! I wantonly inflicted on him an anguish a thousand times worse than death. Meanwhile I endure the penalty of my crime. His figure is ever in imagination before me. Waking or sleeping I still behold him. He seems mildly to expostulate with me for my unfeeling behaviour. (302)

Caleb sees Falkland as a victim who does not deserve to be publicly exposed, and himself as perpetrator. To be sure, Caleb’s sense of culpability is in part warranted, in a sense fundamental to Godwin’s novel. In destroying Falkland – ‘I have been his murderer’ (302) – he has effectively become Falkland, and in this respect, his victory over Falkland is merely a reversal of roles. Yet, contrary to what Caleb himself believes at this point, the causes of this do not lie in his personal character, but in the insoluble, systemic dilemma in which he is caught. The need to expose the terrible injustice he has suffered necessarily entails a puncturing of the illusion to which Falkland has devoted his life. It also makes it impossible for Caleb to act on his agonizing awareness that Falkland, too, has been spiritually crushed by the political system that almost destroyed Caleb. Yet Caleb’s acute remorse at this point suggests that, in spite of his best efforts, he is still entangled by his deeply felt loyalty to Falkland. It shows how he has internalized his own subjection to Falkland, to the extent that he effectively denies Falkland’s guilt. As Gary Handwerk argues in a richly perceptive reading of Caleb Williams, ‘Caleb implausibly elevates Falkland to heroic stature, as if his actual


A Literary History of Reconciliation

guilt had somehow ceased to matter’.16 As we have seen, remorse about his own inquisitiveness is the core emotion which Falkland instils in Caleb, and is therefore central to the social order which Godwin critiques. Indeed, Caleb’s extreme self-incrimination shows how strongly he has adopted Falkland’s aristocratic understanding of the social mechanics of forgiveness, according to which only the ruling classes can lay claim to a sense of injury, while guilt, remorse and a consequent hope for clemency are emotions to be experienced by the powerless. Rather than comprehending what systemic political and ideological forces have produced his suffering, Caleb ‘repersonalizes the guilt for the tragedies of the text’.17 Caleb believes that if only he had spoken to Falkland in private, they could have arrived at a form of ‘conciliation’ (300). Yet this seems strangely optimistic in view of the narrative as it has unfolded so far: as we have seen, it is the fact of Caleb’s forbidden knowledge in itself that engenders Falkland’s implacable hatred. In Caleb Williams, then, unlike in Pamela, remorse does not signal positive personal change, or entry into a moral community, and does not enable characters to transcend existing social hierarchies, and therefore cannot serve as an enabler of comic resolution. Rather, remorse and forgiveness are deeply compromised concepts, symptoms of the very political injustice which Godwin critiques, and an index of the extent to which oppression invades the psychological and spiritual lives of the powerless. In Godwin’s novel, ‘remorse’ operates as a pivotal term within discourses that reformulate the political in religious terms – investing aristocratic authority with a sense of the divine. If, as we have seen, forgiveness flows downward, remorse flows upward: it is the emotion which the subaltern are expected to feel over their transgressions vis-à-vis the powerful. As the fate of Hawkins makes clear, moreover, remorse is also an emotion that the powerless can be made to feel about crimes of which they are innocent. After his trial and conviction for the murder of Tyrrel, ‘Hawkins confessed his guilt with many marks of compunction’ (101).18 Hawkins’s compunction seems to be generated by the trial itself, and by the fact of his imminent execution. Remorse also captures, then, what Godwin understands to be the immense difficulty of changing ‘things as they are’. Indeed, it is precisely the pervasiveness of remorse within the existing social order that constitutes a major impediment to its transformation. Ironically, it is also Caleb’s display of remorse in the novel’s closing scene that convinces his audience of his noble intentions: Such were the accents dictated by my remorse. […] Every one that heard me, was petrified with astonishment. Every one that heard me, was melted into tears. They […] manifested their sympathy in the tokens of my penitence. (300–301)

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


Caleb sees his exposure of Falkland’s crime as itself a crime, for which he repents at the very moment he is committing it. His audience’s response is in fact divided between sympathy for Falkland on the one hand, and sympathy for Caleb’s ‘penitence’ on the other; Falkland’s guilt seems at best of secondary importance. Indeed, as Kenneth Graham notes, the only character whom Caleb manages fully to convince of Falkland’s guilt is Falkland himself.19 In addition to this, Falkland himself only half-understands that the aristocratic honour to which he has sacrificed the lives of the Hawkinses, as well as his own and Caleb’s well-being, is in fact an ideological construct. To be sure, his claim that he has ‘spent a life of the basest cruelty’ to ‘protect myself against the prejudices of my species’ (301) suggests an awareness that the concept of honour is in fact rooted in false consciousness – it hints at an ability on Falkland’s part to disentangle himself from the ‘prejudices of his species’. The word ‘species’, in this context, may refer to humanity in general, or to Falkland’s own social class; on the latter reading, Falkland’s insight into the ideological constructs underpinning his aristocratic identity is more penetrating. Yet this acknowledgement is undercut, ironically enough, by Falkland’s subsequent praise of Caleb: ‘My name will be consecrated to infamy, while your heroism, your patience and your virtues will be for ever admired’ (301–302). Falkland congratulates Caleb on having gained the public admiration which he himself has in vain attempted to safeguard. It is a disastrous compliment, in that it is precisely Falkland’s pursuit of public honour that has wreaked such havoc in the course of Godwin’s novel. If Caleb is unable to escape from his role of loyal servant, therefore, Falkland, too, is ultimately incapable of recognizing the hollowness of the ‘honour’ to which he has devoted his life, continuing to think of ‘a spotless and illustrious name’ (132) – in life and after death – as the highest human achievement. As will become clear in the following section, the remorse felt by Dombey in Dombey and Son is framed as more productive and transformative, even though in Dickens’s novel, the language of forgiveness serves to sustain hierarchical power relations just as much as in Caleb Williams.

Forgiveness, patriarchy and marriage in Dombey and Son The denouement of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (published in serial form in 1846–8) centres on forgiveness in the familial sphere. Mr. Dombey is deserted by his second wife Edith Granger, with whom he has entered into a deeply unhappy marriage of convenience, and who elopes with Dombey’s ruthless business manager James Carker. Enraged at his lack of control over Edith (an


A Literary History of Reconciliation

issue which preoccupies him for much of the novel), he strikes Florence, his daughter from his first marriage, and tells her to join Edith: In his frenzy, he lifted up his cruel arm, and struck her, crosswise, with that heaviness, that she tottered on the marble floor; and as he dealt the blow, he told her what Edith was, and bade her follow her, since they had always been in league. (665)

The real target of this act of violence is Edith herself, who is out of Dombey’s reach. Before he strikes Florence, Dombey frantically searches for Edith, with the aim of ‘beating all trace of beauty out of the triumphant face with his bare hand’ (665), and he explicitly conflates his daughter and his wife. Indeed, Dombey’s intense resentment at the affection between Edith and Florence is an important strand in the novel as a whole. In striking Florence, he in part punishes her for being loved by Edith, and, more indirectly, punishes Edith herself for spontaneously feeling for Florence the kind of affection of which Dombey has so far been incapable. Immediately after this event, Florence runs out into the street, eventually seeking refuge with Captain Cuttle. Dombey is eventually reunited with her in chapter 59, in a forgiveness scene that marks the narrative climax of Dombey and Son. The reunion chapter initially zooms in on the figure of Dombey, bankrupt and alone, wandering around his house, haunted by the loveless authoritarianism that has contributed to his downfall. He is consumed by remorse, even to the extent that he has been reduced to a ‘spectral, haggard, wasted likeness of himself ’, and turned into a dehumanized ‘it’ (842). The passage recalls the description of Falkland’s remorse in Caleb Williams, which similarly renders Falkland ‘ghostlike’, ‘haggard, emaciated, and fleshless’ (268). Like Caleb Williams, Dombey and Son suggests that remorse has an especially devastating effect on powerful men, since it is an emotion incompatible with male authority. As the narrator suggests in a refrain repeated three times in two paragraphs, Dombey is doomed to feel unending remorse: ‘Let him remember it in that room, years to come’ (838). The phrase also occurs in chapter 18, when Dombey spurns Florence’s love, hating her for having survived childhood, while her sickly brother Paul died at the age of six, dashing Dombey’s dynastic dreams. As with Leontes’s remorse in The Winter’s Tale, this curse cannot be lifted without the intervention of a female character. Like Leontes, Dombey is unable to move beyond his remorse by himself, since he cannot undo his own misdeeds. Dombey’s remorse, therefore, is an obstacle in the relatively comic ending which Dickens’s novel works towards, and presents even a termination of narrative itself: from this point onwards, it

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


is suggested, there will only be remorse. It is only Florence who can break this standstill, healing the pain of Dombey’s remorse, restoring Dombey’s sense of self, and enabling the narrative to take a comic turn, as she unexpectedly returns home and appears before her father. Paradoxically, she breaks Dombey’s emotional deadlock by asking him to forgive her: ‘Papa! Dearest Papa! Pardon me, forgive me! I have come back to ask forgiveness on my knees. I never can be happy more, without it!’ (843). This scene of forgiveness follows a familiar pattern, akin to the modern-day, remorsebased forgiveness paradigms discussed earlier in this book. Florence insists on her self-transformation and moral reform, acknowledges her wrongdoings (whose nature I will discuss below) and feels deep remorse: ‘Papa, dear, I am changed. I am penitent. I know my fault’ (843). It is this blend of remorse and moral reform that enables forgiveness and, with that, makes comic narrative closure possible. As commentators have noted, this scene seems fundamentally unjust: it is Dombey, the abusive father, who should be asking for forgiveness from Florence, not vice versa. To be sure, Dombey does ultimately ask for forgiveness too, but only after Florence’s plea for forgiveness from him. While Florence begs for forgiveness directly from her father, moreover, Dombey turns to God, suggesting that he sees himself as guilty primarily before God, rather than before his daughter: ‘Oh my God, forgive me, for I need it very much’ (844). Indeed, as in the reconciliation between Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, the dynamics of forgiveness in this passage suggest an analogy between Mr Dombey on the one hand and God on the other: Florence is forgiven by Dombey as Dombey is forgiven by God. Indeed, the possibility of Dombey asking forgiveness directly from Florence is explicitly averted: ‘He would have raised his hands and besought her for pardon, but she caught them in her own, and put them down, hurriedly’ (844). It is Florence herself who prevents her father from imitating her own contrite self-abasement (her self-humiliation before her father is discussed in more detail below). She also forecloses in this way a replay of the prison scene in King Lear, unmistakably evoked in the reunion between Dombey and Florence, in which Lear imagines himself supplicating endlessly with Cordelia: ‘Come, let’s away to prison […] / I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness’ (5.3.8–11).20 Dombey is spared this aspect of Lear’s fate. Florence believes that her own guilt lies in having fled her father’s house: ‘I have a child who will soon call Walter [Gay] by the name by which I call you. When it was born, and when I knew how much I loved it, I knew what I had done in leaving you. Forgive me, dear Papa!’ (844). In leaving her father,


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Florence suggests here, she withheld from him his rightful position as patriarch – even though it was her father himself who instructed her to ‘follow’ Edith after striking her. That this is something she realizes now that she herself is a mother underscores the extent to which she identifies with Dombey, and with fathers more generally; her fledgling motherhood only intensifies this identification. The implication of this forgiveness scene is that the physical violence which Dombey inflicted on Florence is ultimately less serious than the suffering which she put him through in robbing him of his status as patriarch, and in making his loss of patriarchal status publicly visible. As Florence says, her remorse about this has enabled her to ‘know my duty better now’ (843). Indeed, Florence has a more general, intuitive tendency to locate the cause of her father’s lack of affection for her in herself, for example in the fact that she is not a boy. In chapter 24, she reflects that her father might forgive her for this if she became ill, in that way becoming more like her now dead brother Paul: If she were to fall ill, if she were to fade like her dear brother, would he then know that she had loved him; would she then grow dear to him; would he come to her bedside, when she was weak and dim of sight, and take her into his embrace, and cancel all the past? Would he so forgive her, in that changed condition, for not having been able to lay open her childish heart to him[?] (350)

Florence’s forgiveness of her father has been described by Richard Gibson as a manifestation of loving generosity: She could demand the apology that she is due as a victim. Dombey knows all of this, just as the narrator and the reader do. She does not claim the moral high ground that is justly hers, however, coming instead as a fellow sinner in need of forgiveness. Her actions offer an image of – and an invitation to join – a new ethical reality governed not by the principles of strict exchange or just deserts but by generosity and grace. Her humility suggests a new redeemed image of him – as a father capable of the love and grace that she extends.21

These observations are worth quoting at some length since they are both perceptive and problematic. It is surely accurate and illuminating to state that Florence foregoes any retributive notion of justice, and her actions can therefore usefully be seen as a form of Cordelia-like grace. Yet to see Dombey and Florence as ‘fellow sinners’ is to obscure the intensely hierarchical character of this forgiveness scene (with Florence, like Milton’s Eve, begging for forgiveness on her knees), and to suggest that their sins (if both can indeed be seen as sinners) are equally grave. While this is arguably the position which Dickens

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invites his readers to adopt, the ideological assumptions on which it rests should be held up to analytical scrutiny rather than being tacitly endorsed. Rather than an instance of Derridean ‘pure forgiveness’, this is a scene with profound political ramifications: Florence’s relinquishing of the ‘retribution’ to which she is entitled – her extraordinary generosity, if you will – serves not so much to create a ‘new ethical reality’ but rather to restore patriarchal gender relations. Rather than forgiving her father, Florence presents herself as the guilty party, her own guilt weightier, both morally and in narrative terms, than that of her father. Moreover, Dombey is able to recognize his own culpability only after Florence’s supplication – not unlike the way in which Milton’s Adam acknowledges his guilt after Eve’s supplication, or the way in which Pamela’s continuing supplications with Mr B. undercut the politically transformative power of the latter’s remorse. Indeed, Dombey’s acknowledgement of his own need for forgiveness constitutes a relatively minor gesture, preceded by Florence’s much more elaborate, much more pivotal display of abject contrition. When Florence, after fleeing from her father’s house, sees the marks of violence on her body in the mirror, she is both deeply distraught and instinctively, unconditionally forgiving: Her tears burst forth afresh at the sight; she was ashamed and afraid of it; but it moved her to no anger against him. Homeless and fatherless, she forgave him everything; hardly thought that she had need to forgive him, or that she did[.] (680)

Crucially, this moment obviates any need for a scene in which Florence forgives her father: Dombey is always already forgiven by his daughter. This forgiveness is tacit, non-transactional, and not conditional on any action – a display of remorse, for example – on Dombey’s part. Overt, transactional forgiveness is required only, as we have seen, at the moment when Florence herself is forgiven by her father. At the same time, this passage makes clear that Florence continues to feel that Dombey is no longer her father, as is also underlined by her subsequent claim that ‘There was no such Being in the world’ (681). It is from this fraught mixture of emotions – simultaneously a sense of fatherlessness and a continuing, unconditional affection for her father – that Florence’s eventual role as both repentant and forgiving daughter emerges. It also remains to be seen whether Florence is indeed in a position where she could in principle demand an apology from her father. Rather, such a gesture would render the reconciliation between them impossible, in that it would impose on Dombey the very act which Dickens studiously avoids: a confession of paternal guilt directly to Florence. In other words, it would entail


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the open indictment of patriarchy from which Dombey and Son ultimately shies away. Dombey acknowledges his own need for forgiveness only to God, while Florence humiliates herself before her father. In this important sense, Florence and Dombey are not fellow sinners. The onus of forgiveness falls on Florence in a double sense: she has to show both remorse and, more implicitly, to forgive. Indeed, Dombey’s state of woundedness after both his business and his status as patriarch collapse intensifies her duty to heal her father by asking for his forgiveness, and overshadows any suffering which she herself has undergone at her father’s hands. In her exchange with Edith in the novel’s penultimate chapter, she cites the ‘afflictions [Dombey] has suffered’ (870) as a reason why Edith should adopt a forgiving stance towards her estranged husband. That Dombey, by his own admission, is also culpable himself ultimately does not affect Florence’s view of him, her own perceived guilt playing a much more dominant role in her mind. As Lisa Surridge argues, the violence committed by Dombey is presented as having an effect primarily on Dombey himself, rather than on Florence. Dombey and Son invites its readers to endorse the notion, also frequently voiced, as Surridge demonstrates, in Victorian debates on marital violence, ‘that wife assault primarily concerns men’. Dombey’s use of physical violence against his daughter – and, indirectly, against his wife – signals first and foremost a failure, and even a disintegration, of masculinity. Dickens’s novel therefore ‘works its resolution by restoring and healing Mr. Dombey himself ’, rather than the daughter who is at the receiving end of his violence.22 When Florence is struck down by her father, the narrator focuses on the effect which Dombey’s violence has on Florence: ‘She saw she had no father upon earth, and ran out, orphaned, from his house’ (666). Florence’s assessment of her situation seems to be supported by the narrator, yet the novel ultimately works towards Florence’s re-acceptance of Dombey, framing the wrong she inflicts on him in denying him his status as father as a more profound problem than the physical violence he inflicts on her. As Catherine Waters observes, ‘Dickens’s fiction is one of the discourses which helped to formulate normative definitions of the family and female identity – the two are inseparable – in the nineteenth century’.23 This insight can be usefully applied to Dombey and Son, whose reader is invited to see Florence’s self-sacrificing forgiveness as a feminine ideal. This is also underlined by the contrast between her and Edith. If Florence serves as a substitute for Edith when Dombey strikes her in chapter 47, her return to the Dombey house and her re-acceptance of Dombey’s authority likewise afford a degree of compensation for Edith’s continuing defiance. The latter is reluctant to forgive Dombey, and

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her eventual attempt at forgiveness remains circumscribed and hypothetical. What limited forgiveness she does offer, moreover, is the result of Florence’s intercession, and of Edith’s love for Florence, as Edith herself makes clear when she hands her letter to Florence: ‘It is given to you, and is obtained by you. He never could have had it otherwise’ (870). In her plea with Edith, Florence revisits a number of important forgiveness tropes. Not only does she assume remorse on Edith’s part, she also conflates the forgiveness granted by Dombey with forgiveness by God: If you would have me ask his pardon, I will do it, Mama. I am almost sure he will grant it now, if I ask him. May Heaven grant it to you, too, and comfort you! […] Walter […] is at the door, and has brought me here. I will tell him [Florence’s husband Walter] that you are repentant. (867)

In addition to this, Florence believes that any plea for forgiveness by Edith will gain in persuasive power if it is relaid by Florence’s husband Walter. Florence also understands – and accepts – that Dombey’s forgiveness as a patriarch will be conditional upon repentance and supplication. Only she and Walter are able to forgive Edith ‘freely’ (867), without a display of self-abasement on her part. In response to Florence’s exhortations, Edith falls to her knees, initially suggesting a supplication similar to Florence’s, yet she then makes a crucial distinction between Dombey and God: ‘Guilty of much! […] Guilty of a blind and passionate resentment, of which I do not, cannot, will not, even now, repent; but not guilty with that dead man. Before God!’ (868). While Florence intuitively aligns her father with God in his prerogative to extend forgiveness, Edith pries apart the patriarchal and the divine, denying Dombey his status as godlike pardoner. Edith is also emphatic, in a way that Florence herself never is, that it is Dombey, rather than she, who is in need of moral self-transformation: ‘I do not repent of what I have done […]. But if he is a changed man –’ (870, italics added). In claiming that she ‘will be repentant’ (871) only if Dombey changes first, Edith effectively reverses the dynamics of forgiveness as they pertain between Dombey and Florence. She denies, furthermore, that such a self-transformation would lead to forgiveness between them, since a genuine personal change on Dombey’s part would only result in the realization that they should never have married in the first place: ‘But that being a changed man, he knows, now, it would never be’ (870). Dombey should have realized at the start that their marriage is a purely financial and dynastic transaction in which Dombey gains ‘a connection to aristocratic blood’ while Edith and her mother, Mrs. Skewton, obtain material wealth.24 Edith eventually does imagine the possibility of a form of forgiveness


A Literary History of Reconciliation

between herself and Dombey, yet she locates it in a future beyond the novel’s own narrative reach: ‘I trust myself to that,’ she said, ‘for his better thoughts of me, and mine of him. When he loves his Florence most, he will hate me least. When he is most proud and happy in her and her children, he will be most repentant of his own part in the dark vision of our married life. At that time, I will be repentant too – let him know it then – and think that when I thought so much of all the causes that had made me what I was, I needed to have allowed more for the causes that had made him what he was. I will try, then, to forgive him his share of blame. Let him try to forgive me mine!’ (871)

The mutual understanding and remorse whose necessity Edith acknowledges here remain hypothetical, deferred indefinitely. And even if the moment of forgiveness were eventually to arrive, it would be only a first attempt at forgiveness: ‘I will try, then, to forgive him.’ After the exchange between Edith and Florence, Edith disappears from Dicken’s novel, and she cannot be accommodated by the novel’s sentimental closing chapter. In this chapter, Dombey finally becomes able to love his daughter Florence, as well as his grandchildren Paul and Florence, redeemed from what Catherine Waters aptly describes as the ‘hard-nosed business ethic’ that has rendered him blind to the ‘the domestic angel at his side, who has never flagged in her devotion to him’.25 While Edith is arguably banished from the novel’s sentimental ending for her refusal to forgive Dombey, the narrator does empathize with the rage she feels towards her mother for using her as a commodity to be sold in marriage, an instrument of her own economic self-advancement. As she tells her mother shortly before she marries Dombey, ‘There is no slave in a market; there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years’ (394). On the eve of the wedding, she professes to forgive her mother, yet her use is the verb ‘to forgive’ has sardonic overtones: Take your own way, mother; share as you please in what you have gained; spend, enjoy, make much of it; and be as happy as you will. The object of our lives is won. Henceforth let us wear it silently. My lips are closed upon the past from this hour. I forgive you your part in to-morrow’s wickedness. May God forgive my own! (434)

Edith’s ‘forgiveness’ in fact marks the termination of her relationship with her mother: she declares all conflicts between them settled, or having lost any

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


relevance, so that they can part ways for good. This is an extremely thin form of forgiveness, in that Edith explicitly forecloses any renewal of the relationship between herself and her mother. Edith’s hope that she herself will be forgiven by God, by contrast, seems free of such sarcasm, and Dombey and Son repeatedly suggests that she feels acute guilt about entering into a loveless, purely mercenary marriage, seeing her affection for Florence, moreover, as a partial atonement. Remarkably, Edith does repeat her words of forgiveness when her mother is on her deathbed: ‘I told you [the night before she married Dombey] that I forgave your part in [the marriage], and prayed God to forgive my own. I told you that the past was at an end between us. I say so now, again. Kiss me, mother’ (585). Yet Mrs Skewton does not respond to Edith’s words, and the narrator informs us that ‘her mother, with her girlish laugh, and the skeleton of the Cleopatra manner, rises in her bed’ (585). Immediately after this, as Patricia Ingham notes, Mrs Skewton ‘dies deluded’, clinging to her self-image as a regal beauty until the very end.26 This is not a moment of reciprocal forgiveness, but rather forgiveness offered to a party both unrepentant and incapable of responding, like Prospero forgiving the catatonic Antonio. In her fraught forgiveness of her mother, in her refusal to forgive Dombey, and in her refusal to see herself as guilty before him, the figure of Edith marks the limits of forgiveness. In Dombey and Son, these limits are at the same time the limits of comic closure, as well as the limits of patriarchal authority. In this sense, Lisa Surridge is right in arguing that while Dombey is healed by Florence’s forgiveness, Edith’s reluctance to forgive makes her ‘the target of the text’s vilification’.27 Edith’s unwillingness to take part in the novel’s authoritative forgiveness paradigm – remorse-driven, hierarchical, and ultimately affirmative of patriarchal authority – places her outside its comic ending. In Dombey and Son, patriarchal authority not only generates the conflicts that render reconciliation necessary, but also gains a new lease of life from them, in that the dynamics of reconciliation entail an appeasing of male authority, and a reaffirmation of female subjection. In this sense, patriarchy is sustained by the very crisis which it engenders – by the violence to which it resorts in the face of female disobedience. This state of affairs is not undermined by the fact that Dombey is also himself morally transformed by the female character who begs for his forgiveness, and that he is brought to acknowledge his own male culpability and need for forgiveness. For this acknowledgement rests on a prior female self-abasement – and therefore on a prior consolidation of patriarchal power, and a preemptive defusing of any critiques levelled against it. It is this self-abasement which creates a safe space in which patriarchy can concede its


A Literary History of Reconciliation

own flaws without jeopardizing its legitimacy. While Dombey and Son portrays patriarchal authority as fundamentally compromised, therefore, it ultimately retreats from the abyss, salvaging patriarchy through its celebration of the forgiving Florence. Like Caleb Williams, Dombey and Son is in fact alert to the political dimension of forgiveness, and specifically to the ways in which forgiveness discourses help to sustain class hierarchies. This becomes clear from a dialogue between Harriet Carker and the wayfarer Alice Marwood, one of the ragged ‘stragglers’ (480) who wander past Harriet’s house into London. When Alice explains that she has ‘been where convicts go’ (482), transported for theft and newly returned to England, Harriet’s response suggests that a crime must not be atoned for by a prison sentence only, but also – and arguably more importantly – requires divine forgiveness: ‘Heaven help you and forgive you!’ (482). While the narrator describes Harriet’s words as ‘gentle’ (482), Alice is quick to point out that what she really needs is a more just society, and a less harsh penal system: ‘Ah! Heaven help me and forgive me! […] If man would help some of us a little more, God would forgive us all the sooner perhaps’ (482). Moreover, Harriet believes in the universal social efficacy of forgiveness, claiming that through penitence and self-betterment Alice will eventually erase her crime: ‘There is nothing we may not hope to repair; it is never too late to amend[.] You are penitent’ (483). Alice’s bitter rejoinder once again points to the social injustice that is glossed over by the religious vocabulary of forgiveness and penitence: ‘No,’ she answered. ‘I am not! I can’t be. I am no such thing. Why should I be penitent, and all the world go free? They talk to me of my penitence. Who’s penitent for the wrongs that have been done to me?’ (483)

As Alice suggests, ‘penitence’ is required only of certain social classes, while the definition of ‘wrongs’ has a similar built-in class-bias. Through the figure of Alice Marwood, Dickens’s novel invites sympathy with the victims of class inequality, indicting the hypocrisies built into the language of forgiveness. Yet its criticism of forgiveness ultimately does not extend to issues of gender, especially as they function within the context of the patriarchal family. Indeed, forgiveness in a family setting serves in part as a compensation for the larger, systemic social injustice which Dombey and Son addresses, for example in the form of the penal system of which Alice Marwood is a victim. And it is within this domestic context that forgiveness, as a way of redeeming patriarchy from itself and of recreating the ideals of emotional warmth that Victorian ideologies projected on to the family, figures as a specifically female responsibility.

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


And even Alice Marwood’s political critique of forgiveness is ultimately domesticated, as becomes clear at her death in chapter 58 (‘After a Lapse’). In a death-bed conversion to Christianity, Alice abandons her former defiance (‘It is like a dream, now, which I cannot quite remember or understand’ [826]), and comes to embrace the very language of forgiveness which she had rejected earlier in the novel. She tells Harriet Carker that she forgives her own mother, knowing also ‘that she forgives me, and is sorry in her heart’ (826), situating forgiveness in the domestic, familial setting in a manner that is in line with Dombey and Son as a whole. Her dying wish is that Harriet read to her from ‘the eternal book for all the weary and the heavy-laden’ (827). This results in one of the most celebrated and lyrical passages in the novel, in which the New Testament is described as the blessed history, in which the blind lame palsied beggar, the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all our dainty clay, has each a portion, that no human pride, indifference, or sophistry, through all the ages that this world shall last, can take away, or by the thousandth atom of a grain reduce – read the ministry of Him who, through the round of human life, and all its hopes and griefs, from birth to death, from infancy to age, had sweet compassion for, and interest in, its every scene and stage, its every suffering and sorrow. (827)

While readers are clearly invited to applaud Harriet Carker’s Christ-like ‘sweet compassion’ with Alice, it leaves unanswered the latter’s earlier question: ‘Who’s penitent for the wrongs that have been done to me?’.

Full forgiveness and the fallen woman in Bleak House Bleak House abounds in forgiveness scenes. In chapter 3, Esther Summerson asks for her godmother’s forgiveness; in chapter 36, Lady Honoria Dedlock asks her illegitimate daughter Esther to forgive her; in chapter 47, the crossing sweeper Jo, dying of pneumonia, hopes to be forgiven for having infected Esther with smallpox; in chapter 55, George Rouncewell asks his mother for forgiveness; in chapters 56 and 58, Sir Leicester forgives Lady Honoria, in her absence, for her past as a fallen woman; in chapter 65, the dying Richard Carstone pleads with Ada Clare and John Jarndyce to forgive him for his profligacy. As this – non-exhaustive – list suggests, forgiveness haunts Dickens’s novel, with many of its characters craving forgiveness from others, frequently at the hour of their death, and many of the interpersonal relationships it portrays turning on the question of forgiveness. Given this chapter’s focus on the politics of forgiveness,


A Literary History of Reconciliation

it is striking that Bleak House presents two figures of male authority who not only readily forgive others, but do so unconditionally, and in ways that can be seen as relatively non-hierarchical: Sir Leicester Dedlock and John Jarndyce, the guardian of Esther Summerson, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Indeed, unlike Dombey and Son, Bleak House does not frame forgiveness as a distinctively female virtue, instead presenting forgiving men as moral role models. When the dying Richard Carstone asks John Jarndyce whether he can ‘forgive and pity the dreamer’ (979), the latter responds by saying that ‘Indeed I can. What am I but another dreamer, Rick?’ (979). Richard is referring to his entanglement in the interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, which he fervently believed would make him a wealthy man and on which he has bootlessly expended most of his energies. Rather than censuring Richard for his foolishness, John Jarndyce identifies with him as a fellow-sinner of sorts, suggesting that he himself has been just as much in the grips of the Jarndyce case – even though he has in fact wisely made a point of having as little to do with it as possible. Indeed, Jarndyce indulges Richard’s fantasy that he will now ‘begin the world’ (979). Like himself, John implies, Richard has now woken up to the reality of the Jarndyce case, and is therefore ready to set out on a more realistic life course. Sir Leicester’s ‘full forgiveness’ (859) of his wife, examined in more detail below, marks a more radical departure from the hierarchical forgiveness scenarios we have so far encountered, partly in that it is the only moment in Bleak House when forgiveness is offered spontaneously, without a prior request. In the note which she writes to her husband before leaving Chesney Wold, Lady Honoria in fact assumes that, now that he knows about her past, he will feel only ‘just resentment’ (856) towards her, and she sees oblivion as the best she can hope for. Sir Leicester’s forgiving stance as a male aristocrat, therefore, confounds all expectations, also given his intransigence in his long-standing conflict with his neighbour Boythorn over a right-of-way across the latter’s property, in some ways a miniature version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. These two moments contrast starkly with the first forgiveness scene in Bleak House, that between Esther Summerson and her godmother (and sister of Lady Honoria), Miss Barbary. As the latter is on her deathbed, Esther attempts in vain to obtain forgiveness from her: Many and many a time, in the day and in the night, with my head upon the pillow by her that my whispers might be plainer to her, I kissed her, thanked her, prayed for her, asked her for her blessing and forgiveness, entreated her to give me the least sign that she knew or heard me. No, no, no. Her face was immovable. To the very last, and even afterwards, her frown remained unsoftened. (32–33)

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


The scene recalls Jane Eyre’s forgiveness of Mrs Reed, although the roles of forgiver and wrongdoer are inverted. In both cases, an orphan seeks a deathbedreconciliation with an abusive and unresponsive aunt. That Esther should ask for forgiveness from Miss Barbary, rather than offering forgiveness to her, shows the extent to which she has adopted the idea that she bears her mother’s crime, and has to live a life of atonement. This is in fact what her godmother famously tells her earlier in the chapter: ‘Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers’ (30). While Miss Barbary claims to ‘have forgiven’ her sister for her sexual transgression, Esther notes that ‘her face d[oes] not relent’ (30) as she speaks these words – just as she continues to reject Esther, even, in Esther’s own perception, after death. Both Esther’s longing for, and the failure of, forgiveness at this early moment in the novel alert us to what we might call the socio-political production of forgiveness: the ways in which feelings of remorse, the sense of needing forgiveness, and the perceived right to forgive are engendered by power relations and ideology. Esther is conditioned to crave forgiveness for her illegitimacy by a set of patriarchal values which, as a child, she intuitively shares, but by which she is also mystified, as is suggested by the agonized questions which she poses to Miss Barbary: ‘Why am I so different from other children, and why is it my fault, dear godmother?’ (30). Miss Barbary has taken on herself the task of raising the illegitimate Esther, in this way sharing in Esther’s exclusion from a regular family life, and, as we find out much later in the novel, sacrificing her own relationship with Lawrence Boythorn. Yet she does so grudgingly, harbouring deep resentment against Esther, and incapable of forgiving what she sees as Esther’s crime of having been born. It is telling that Miss Barbary’s death is brought on by Esther’s reading of St John 8:7, in which Christ defends an adulterous woman by stressing the sinfulness of all human beings: ‘So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her!’ (32). The passage undermines the notion, on which Miss Barbary’s entire sense of self-worth rests, that she is less sinful than both her sister and godchild and that her own need of forgiveness is therefore less urgent. This causes a shock from which death seems the only escape. Dickens’s examination of forgiveness in Bleak House is suspended between the two conflicting paradigms outlined in the preceding paragraphs. On the one hand, there is the spontaneous, unconditional, ‘full forgiveness’ proffered by Sir Leicester to Lady Honoria, and the sympathetic, equally unconditional forgiveness which John Jarndyce grants Richard Carstone. On the other hand, there is Miss Barbary’s refusal to forgive Esther for having been born out of


A Literary History of Reconciliation

wedlock, and her horror at the idea of universal sinfulness. Perversely, it is precisely the marginal, powerless Miss Barbary who is most uncompromising in her adherence to the values of Victorian patriarchy, even as she, together with Esther and Lady Dedlock, suffers its destructive effects most directly. The only other character with similarly unbending views on illegitimacy is the lawyer Tulkinghorn. Yet, as we will see, the benign forgiveness embodied by Sir Leicester and John Jarndyce ultimately has a limited purchase on the socio-political realities represented in Bleak House, offering no adequate compensation for the various form of oppression and systemic injustice which it explores. Indeed, Bleak House is itself to a degree complicit in the very values it critiques. It does not ultimately discredit Lady Honoria’s own conviction that her past sins have placed her ‘beyond all hope, and beyond all help’ (580), and that death is the only fate open to her. Even though Dickens’s novel applauds Sir Leicester’s forgiveness of his wife, it ultimately cannot imagine a future for its fallen woman beyond the mausoleum in which she is eventually interred, and for which Sir Leicester himself, too, is destined. It is Sir Leicester’s forgiveness of Lady Honoria which we will now examine in more detail. It is clear that when Sir Leicester learns about Lady Honoria’s past, and that she has fled Chesney Wold, he does not experience even the slightest anger or resentment, but continues to feel a selfless love for her. Even at the onset of his stroke, the narrator stresses that he ‘sees [Honoria], almost at the exclusion of himself ’, and is ‘oblivious of his [own] suffering’, focused entirely on the suffering that would await her if she were to be ‘cast down from the high place she has graced so well’ (838). His response when he learns that she has left Chesney Wold is limited to three alliterating words, written on a slate since his stroke has left him unable to speak: ‘Full forgiveness. Find –’ (859). This moment constitutes one of the very few unconditional, non-transactional and spontaneous instances of forgiveness by a male figure of authority discussed in this book. Indeed, Sir Leicester’s ‘full forgiveness’ recalls Cordelia’s ‘no cause’ in King Lear, and this helps to underscore how radically it subverts the politics of forgiveness as we have frequently encountered it. Like Cordelia’s ‘no cause’, the phrase ‘full forgiveness’ lacks a grammatical subject and (finite) verb. It is abstracted both from time and from human agency, therefore, existing only as an absolute, unconditional given. Indeed, Sir Leicester’s words of forgiveness mark a departure from his usual, stiffly formal rhetoric and hover on the edge of language: he is unable to speak, his final imperative cut short by the practical-minded Inspector Bucket, who understands what Sir Leicester wishes to communicate, and knows he has not a moment to lose.

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


Bleak House invites us to contrast Sir Leicester’s concise, even halting, private statement of forgiveness favourably with the public, endlessly proliferating and self-serving language of the law, represented by the Jarndyce and Jarndyce Chancery suit. In a comment on the lawyer Mr. Vholes, the narrator explicitly says that ‘the one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself ’ (621). The result is an endless chain of legal documents – ‘cartloads of papers’ (118) in John Jarndyce’s words – that never fulfil their professed aim of serving justice. As J. Hillis Miller points out, Bleak House demands that the reader distinguish legal public performatives from the silent ones that accompany quiet doing good to those nearest. The only wholly felicitous written performatives in the novel are Sir Leicester’s writing on his slate as he lies speechless after his stroke, ‘Full forgiveness. Find – ’ (56), and its echo in the last words of Lady Dedlock’s final note: ‘Farewell. Forgive’ (59).28

Hillis Miller’s reading is both confirmed and complicated by Sir Leicester’s more fulsome and more formal words of forgiveness in chapter 58, when he has regained the power of speech. In the presence of his sister Volumnia, his housekeeper Mrs Rouncewell and her son George, Sir Leicester reiterates his forgiveness of Honoria in a more legalistic mode: I desire to say […] that I am on unaltered terms with Lady Dedlock. That I assert no cause whatever of complaint against her. That I have ever had the strongest affection for her, and that I retain it undiminished. Say this to herself, and to every one. If you ever say less than this, you will be guilty of deliberate falsehood to me. (895)

The narrator glowingly compliments Sir Leicester on his generosity, subversively framing it as the hallmark of honourable masculinity: His noble earnestness, his fidelity, his gallant shielding of her, his generous conquest of his own wrong and his own pride for her sake, are simply honourable, manly, and true. Nothing less worthy can be seen through the lustre of such qualities in the commonest mechanic, nothing less worthy can be seen in the best-born gentleman. (895)

The masculinity of which Sir Leicester partakes, and which he arguably inaugurates, entails a radical rejection of the aristocratic masculinity codes discussed earlier in this chapter, which revolve precisely around a reluctance to forgive, a preoccupation with one’s own social status, and an insistence on deference and humiliation. Indeed, Sir Leicester’s honourable manliness is


A Literary History of Reconciliation

explicitly detached by the narrator from social class, defined rather in terms of character, and in principle attainable, therefore, by all men.29 Dickens’s narrator is not alone in celebrating Sir Dedlock’s forgiving selflessness. In his 2012 address at the Wreathlaying Ceremony to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams celebrated Sir Leicester’s forgiveness of Lady Honoria as ‘one of the strangest, most shocking images that [Dickens] ever gives us of compassion and mercy’, and as an ‘utterly unreasonable compassion, which because of its utter unreasonableness can change everything’.30 Yet for all his spectacular disavowal of the patriarchal ideologies of Victorian England, Sir Leicester is also an ineffective figure. His forgiving stance fails to prevent or undo the havoc which these ideologies cause, and he himself lives out the remainder of his life a broken man. In this sense, his compassion changes nothing. Indeed, his ‘full forgiveness’ is a failed, rather than a felicitous, speech act in that its addressee is absent, and dead before her husband’s message of forgiveness can reach her. Furthermore, what Sir Leicester – and Bleak House with him – leaves unexamined, perhaps necessarily, is the assumption that Lady Honoria, as a fallen woman, is in need of forgiveness from her husband. Sir Leicester does not – and cannot – indict the larger ideological and institutional forces which drive Lady Honoria to her suicide. These are embodied especially by the lawyer Tulkinghorn, in whom Sir Leicester places a great deal of trust, and who is convinced that the latter is as obsessed with illegitimacy and female sexual transgression as he himself is, and who sees it as his duty to protect the Dedlock family name at all costs. He succeeds, moreover, in convincing Lady Honoria that her husband will never forgive her past sins, and that if her past came to light, her disgrace would be total. Sir Leicester’s second, more elaborate forgiveness statement is also compromised by the fact that it is couched in part in the impersonal, legalistic language so vehemently satirized and condemned throughout Bleak House. In addition, while the narrator asks us to see Sir Leicester’s forgiveness as unrelated to social class, the vocabulary of aristocracy still insinuates itself into the passage quoted above, with its talk of ‘noble earnestness’ and ‘gallant shielding’. A sense of hierarchy – social and otherwise – is also central to Sir Leicester’s praise of his wife: ‘My Lady is too high in position, too handsome, too accomplished, too superior in most respects to the best of those by whom she is surrounded’ (895). His insistence that ‘she has graced’ her ‘high place […] so well’ (838), moreover, suggests that she is deserving of his forgiveness in part because she has fulfilled her role as aristocrat so effectively.

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


It is telling, in this context, that Sir Leicester Dedlock, as his very surname also suggests, is a figure of the past, childless, his home filled with equally childless ‘poor relations’ (446) who rely on him for financial support. As the narrator suggests in the penultimate chapter, his only lasting legacy is the family mausoleum: The greater part of the house is shut up […]; yet Sir Leicester holds his shrunken state in the long drawing-room for all that, and reposes in his old place before my Lady’s picture. Closed in by night with broad screens, and illumined only in that part, the light of the drawing-room seems gradually contracting and dwindling until it shall be no more. A little more, in truth, and it will be all extinguished for Sir Leicester; and the damp door in the mausoleum which shuts so tight, and looks so obdurate, will have opened and received him. (983)

As Monica M. Young-Zook suggests, ‘the Dedlocks are so wrapped in death that they must pass on so that others may live, though they may do nothing for these others in life’.31 Esther Summerson, through the help of her guardian, manages to free herself of the sins of her mother, entering into a respectable and loving marriage with the physician Allan Woodcourt, and disproving her resentful godmother’s predictions. Yet in Bleak House, both the fallen woman herself and her forgiving husband are doomed and marked for death. In this sense, Lady Honoria’s own characterization of her ‘remorse’ over her past sins as ‘useless’ (582) is entirely apt. The limited efficacy of forgiveness manifested in the figure of Sir Leicester also applies to other forgiveness scenes in Bleak House. Lady Honoria’s deeply fraught plea for forgiveness from Esther when they meet for the first time offers a case in point. Her plea for forgiveness in fact constitutes the very first words which Lady Honoria speaks to her daughter, in a gesture of supplicatory selfhumiliation that recalls the forgiveness scenarios discussed in this and earlier chapters: ‘She fell down on her knees and cried to me, “O my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! O try to forgive me”’ (579). As Carolyn Dever notes, ‘what should be the most profoundly integrated moment of the novel, when Esther and her mother rest in each other’s arms, is among the most disturbing’.32 Esther feels deeply uncomfortable with her mother’s self-abasement before her daughter – violating as it does conventional intergenerational hierarchies – and both accepts and rejects her request for forgiveness: I raised my mother up, praying and beseeching her not to stoop before me in such affliction and humiliation. I did so in broken incoherent words; for, besides


A Literary History of Reconciliation

the trouble I was in, it frightened me to see her at my feet. I told her – or I tried to tell her – that if it were for me, her child, under any circumstances to take upon me to forgive her, I did it, and had done it, many, many years. I told her that my heart overflowed with love for her; that it was natural love, which nothing in the past had changed, or could change. That it was not for me, then resting for the first time on my mother’s bosom, to take her to account for having given me life; but that my duty was to bless her and receive her, though the whole world turned from her, and that I only asked her leave to do it. (579)

In a manner that recalls Florence’s forgiveness of her father in Dombey and Son, Esther reassures her mother that she has always already forgiven her, yet at the same time she points, in a ‘series of equivocal statements and qualified clauses’, to the incongruity, even the impossibility, of her mother’s plea.33 Lady Honoria effectively asks to be exonerated, moreover, for the fact of Esther’s existence, and this sits uneasily with the mutual affection which they also express. The shame which Lady Honoria has been conditioned to feel over her transgression precludes any unproblematic affection between herself and Esther. Throughout this scene, moreover, Lady Honoria insists that her secret cannot be revealed, and that she and Esther must never meet again. In her last spoken words to Esther, she reiterates her desperate longing for forgiveness: ‘Forgive her, if you can; and cry to Heaven to forgive her, which it never can!’ (582). Referring to herself in the third person, she asks Esther to think of her mother in similarly distant terms, while at the same time trying to forgive her. For Esther, therefore, forgiving her mother is effectively coterminous with being abandoned by her, this time definitively. Indeed, as Dever rightly points out, ‘in a perverse twist of logic, [Esther] has become an agent in her own abandonment’.34 Finally, in one and the same breath, Lady Honoria insists both on Esther’s continuing efforts to forgive her and on the impossibility of divine forgiveness for her sin, framing her daughter’s forgiveness as a form of compensation for her inevitable damnation. Lady Honoria’s final written note to Esther ends on another appeal for forgiveness: ‘Farewell. Forgive’ (910). As J. Hillis Miller points out in the comment quoted above, these words echo Sir Leicester’s ‘Full forgiveness. Find –’, both in their alliterative character and in the final imperative. On one level, Sir Leicester’s terse statement of forgiveness can be seen as a preemptive fulfilment of Lady Honoria’s plea. Yet there is also a fundamental contrast between the two utterances: while Sir Leicester presents forgiveness as a fait accompli (however problematic and tragic it may be within the novel as a whole), his wife can only hope to find in death the forgiveness that eludes her in life. Moreover, Lady Honoria craves posthumous forgiveness only from her daughter; as we have

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


seen, she assumes as a given that she will never be forgiven by her husband. Yet Esther’s forgiveness of her mother exists, of course, only virtually, beyond the reach of Dickens’s narrative. Indeed, while Lady Honoria hoped to be forgotten by her husband – ‘May you […] be able to forget the unworthy woman on whom you have wasted a most generous devotion’ (856) – it is in fact Esther who seems, in the closing chapters of Bleak House, to have forgotten about her mother. Once the door of the Dedlock family mausoleum has shut, Lady Honoria vanishes from the narrative, that has now become Esther’s. A comparable sense of failure pervades two other forgiveness scenes in Bleak House: that between Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, and between Jo and Mr Snagsby. As we have seen, the dying Richard secures forgiveness from John Jarndyce. Yet he dies before Ada can respond to his final, more insistent confession of guilt, and plea for forgiveness from her: ‘I have done you many wrongs, my own. I have fallen like a poor stray shadow on your way, I have married you to poverty and trouble, I have scattered your means to the winds. You will forgive me all this, my Ada, before I begin the world?’ (979). Moved by the tragic scene, the narrator subsequently laments that Richard indeed ‘began the world’, as he so much wanted to, yet ‘Not this world, O no this! The world that sets this right’ (979). Like Lady Honoria, Richard may find forgiveness only after death. Richard takes upon himself the full responsibility for wasting Ada’s small inheritance on the Jarndyce case, and failing to succeed in the various occupations at which he has tried his hand. Yet his sense of guilt is also disproportionate. Those who preyed on his naivety, principally Mr Vholes and Harold Skimpole, never experience any sense of guilt, or, for that matter, any need of forgiveness. Indeed, in the diary which he leaves behind, Skimpole accuses John Jarndyce, on whose financial support he relies throughout Bleak House, of being ‘the Incarnation of Selfishness’ (935). In this sense, Richard is like the young Esther Summerson, who similarly felt that her mother’s transgression was also hers. Indeed, in Bleak House, guilt and remorse are experienced especially by those who are either powerless or a victim of larger, ideological and institutional forces over which they have no control, or of which they are even unaware. A particularly revealing example is the death of Jo, the orphan crossing sweeper. In his dying moments, Jo feels guilty about having infected Esther with smallpox when he himself was ill, and asks Mr. Snagsby to write out, wery large so that any one could see it anywheres, as that I was truly hearty sorry that I done it and that I never went fur to do it; and that though I


A Literary History of Reconciliation

didn’t know nothink at all, I knowd as Mr Woodcot once cried over it and wos allus grieved over it, and that I hoped as he’d be able to forgiv me in his mind. If the writing could be made to say it wery large, he might. (731)

Much like Richard, Jo sees himself not as the victim of systemic social injustice which he so clearly is, but as a wrongdoer in need of forgiveness, in this case from the physician Allan Woodcourt, Esther’s future husband. The illiterate Jo also ascribes magical qualities to writing, and especially to the legal documents which Mr Snagsby, as a Law-Stationer, produces. Yet in Bleak House, it is precisely written, and especially legal documents that are the cause of so much suffering. Arguably the most successful forgiveness scene in Bleak House is that between George Rouncewell and his mother. Remorseful for having abandoned his mother, George falls on his knees before Mrs Rouncewell in a gesture of subjection and prayer, ‘put[ting] his hands together as a child does when it says its prayers, and raising them towards her breast’. This moment clearly recalls the supplications in Paradise Lost, Pamela and Dombey and Son, yet is also marks a departure from them. While she is as forgiving of her son as Sir Leicester is of his wife, Mrs Rouncewell does not represent patriarchy, nor is she a figure of authority, and her relation to her son is entirely and explicitly non-hierarchical. She does not so much feel wronged by George, but rather longed for a reassuring sign of life from him during his long absence, describing the ‘years and years’ of George’s absence as ‘cruel’ (844), but not George himself. George’s posture is likened, moreover, to a child’s prayer, and this further mitigates the sense of subjection which this moment evokes, underlining instead George’s identity as his mother’s child, and inviting us to see his kneeling in spiritual and affective rather than hierarchical terms. His is in the first instance a prayer per se, and only secondarily a prayer for forgiveness. When George subsequently asks his mother to forgive him – ‘for I know my need of it’ – her response makes clear that she has always already forgiven him, that there has never been a moment at which he was not forgiven, and that his status as a beloved child has never been in doubt: Forgive him! She does it with all her heart and soul. She always has done it. She tells him how she has had it written in her will, these many years, that he was her beloved son George. She has never believed any ill of him, never. If she had died without this happiness – and she is an old woman now and can’t look to live very long – she would have blessed him with her last breath, if she had had her senses, as her beloved son George. (844)

Mrs Rouncewell, perhaps more than any other character examined in this study, can be seen as imitating the loving father in the parable of the Prodigal

Hierarchical Forgiveness from Pamela to Bleak House


Son discussed in the introductory chapter. Like the latter, she is motivated exclusively by unconditional, non-transactional love, and she feels only joy at her son’s return. Needless to say, this is also a more felicitous forgiveness scene than Sir Leicester’s ‘full forgiveness’ moment, in that the forgiven party is present, and that Mrs Rouncewell and her son are reunited, with George joining his mother in the Dedlock household. In this sense, Mrs Rouncewell’s forgiveness of George carries enormous narrative and ethical weight. Yet it is revealing that in Bleak House, unambiguously successful forgiveness is reserved for a marginal, powerless, female servant and her son. George does not transgress against patriarchy; in the narrative logic of Bleak House, this makes his offense more easily forgivable. In all other contexts, forgiveness is problematic and hedged about with reservations, can only be hoped for, or is even an impossibility. In Bleak House, acts of forgiveness, no matter how generous, cannot compensate for, or alleviate, the suffering caused by patriarchy and its attendant preoccupation with illegitimacy and female sexual transgression, and by a dysfunctional legal system whose most powerful representative sees the protection of patriarchal authority as his most important duty. This also means that Bleak House, like Dombey and Son, ultimately frames forgiveness as a task for female characters.


‘The Apathy of the Stars’: Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses

This chapter examines the ways in which interpersonal reconciliation is imagined in two canonical modernist novels: Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Both novels turn on what Stephen Dedalus calls a ‘sundering’ between main characters that is eventually resolved – at least in part – through a form of reconciliation that is crucial in narrative terms yet also remains elusive. The interpersonal conflicts in To the Lighthouse centre around the demanding, insecure patriarch Mr Ramsay, who is detested by his young son James, and whose very presence puts a strain on the Ramsay family. Mrs Ramsay sees it as her duty to foster domestic harmony, and Woolf ’s novel explores the various ways in which she attempts to do so, for example by means of the dinner party in chapter 17 of the novel’s first section. While the effectiveness of Mrs Ramsay’s efforts remains limited, a more successful form of reconciliation occurs between Mr Ramsay and Cam – and arguably James – in the closing chapters of To the Lighthouse. The most conspicuous sundering and reconciliation in Ulysses is that between Molly and Leopold Bloom, for whom the possibility of a new start to their troubled marriage is suggested in the novel’s final two chapters. Both novels focus on reconciliation in the intimate, familial and marital sphere. Yet paradoxically, this intimate reconciliation entails the adoption of an impersonal, even non-human perspective on interpersonal conflicts. Cam is able to accept her father during the voyage to the lighthouse, when she feels detached from the pressures of human relationships by the impersonal sea which now surrounds her. Likewise, Bloom accepts Molly’s adultery through a meditation on the inertia of matter and the indifference of the cosmos. What is absent from the reconciliation scenes in both novels is a clear sense of moral transformation in the forgiven characters: Mr Ramsay and Molly Bloom do not express remorse or overtly acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part, nor is


A Literary History of Reconciliation

such remorse a requirement. Indeed, in the figure of Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses all but explicitly rejects the theology of remorse-based forgiveness discussed in previous chapters. Moreover, neither Cam nor Bloom feels any urge to inform Mr Ramsay or Molly Bloom that they have been forgiven. That interpersonal reconciliation, in both cases, remains uncommunicated also renders it elusive and inconclusive. The scenes of intimate reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses should also be understood in terms of the larger political and historical contexts which both novels evoke. To the Lighthouse offsets the reconciliation between Cam and Mr Ramsay against the global, military conflicts of the First World War that tear into the lives of the Ramsays, and over which they have no control. In this sense, reconciliation in the intimate sphere, tentative as it is, is the only form of conflict resolution available in the early twentieth-century world which To the Lighthouse depicts. In Ulysses, Bloom’s detached acceptance of Molly’s infidelity exists in tension with Stephen Dedalus’s rejection of ‘the spirit of reconciliation’. As we will see, this rejection has a strongly political dimension, and the question is whether the impersonal perspective which Bloom adopts in his reconciliation with Molly also constitutes a basis for reconciliation in the political sphere, especially given the violent colonial history which Ulysses repeatedly invokes. Finally, both novels depart significantly from the patriarchal models of forgiveness we have encountered: Molly Bloom does not supplicate with Leopold nor does Cam beg contritely for forgiveness from her father.

Domestic reconciliation in To the Lighthouse To the Lighthouse introduces one of its defining interpersonal conflicts – that between Mr Ramsay and his children, especially James – on its very first page. In the novel’s opening sentence, Mrs Ramsay reassures her six-yearold son James that the weather will be ‘fine to-morrow’ (11) and that they will sail to the lighthouse. Yet the prospect of going to the lighthouse – which fills James with ‘extraordinary joy’ (11) – is almost immediately undercut by his uncomprehending father, who bluntly states that ‘it won’t be fine’ (12). Mr Ramsay’s remark causes silent but intense, murderous rage in James: ‘Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it’ (12). The paragraph describing James’s anger at his father slips seamlessly in and out of James’s own perspective. It is James himself who thinks his mother

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


is ‘ten thousand times better in every way’ (12) than his father, but the narrator also adopts a more detached, analytical perspective, observing that ‘such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence’ (12) and commenting on the delight he takes in simultaneously ‘disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife’ (12) in one overbearing gesture. In chapter 6 of the novel’s first section, Mr Ramsay’s attempt at playfulness with his son – ‘tickl[ing] James’s bare calf with a sprig of something’ (53) – is met by James with hostility: ‘Hating his father, James brushed away the tickling spray’ (53). James’s response stems in part from the fact that even his father’s attempts at humour contain an element of patriarchal ‘severity’ (53). As we will see below, ten years later James will remember this moment as an instance of his father’s ‘tyranny’ (252). The aspiring academic and admirer of Mr Ramsay, Charles Tansley is a source of resentment in the Ramsay children similar to their father. Like Mr Ramsay, Tansley habitually stage-manages every conversation in such a way that it will ‘somehow reflect himself and disparage them’ (18). Tansley also repeatedly confirms, more categorically and definitively than Mr Ramsay, that ‘there’ll be no landing at the Lighthouse to-morrow’ (17). If Mr Ramsay kindles rage in his children by the mere fact of his presence, his aggressive authoritarianism and intense emotional neediness form a more specific root cause of the family tensions in To the Lighthouse. This authoritarianism and neediness are articulated even in his bodily comportment. Mrs Ramsay is especially adept at decoding Mr Ramsay’s body language. She accurately reads ‘the familiar signs’ of her husband’s inexplicable anguish and outrage: ‘his eyes averted, and some curious gathering together of his person’ (52). While Mr Ramsay prides himself on his intellectual superiority, he is also deeply insecure about the value of his work as a philosopher and about the relative excellence of his mind, comparing the capacities of human thought to the way letters are ordered in the alphabet: ‘Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something’ (57). This insecurity renders Mr Ramsay strongly dependent, as the Ramsay family friend William Bankes puts it, on ‘people’s praise’ (40). As Lily Briscoe observes, Mr Ramsay’s dependency on others puts a burden especially on his wife: ‘he wears Mrs Ramsay to death’ (43). From the outset, then, To the Lighthouse presents intimate human relations as marked by conflict. Its primal scenes of conflict introduce a number of strands important to Woolf ’s novel as a whole: a clash between individual desires and the demands of male authority; the difficulty of reading others (embodied, for example, by Mr Ramsay’s failure to gauge James’s feelings); and the fraught role


A Literary History of Reconciliation

of ritual in negotiating and managing the fractious nature of human relations (addressed, for example, in James’s refusal to play his allotted part in his father’s attempt at playful reconciliation). In granting interpersonal discord such a primal, foundational role, moreover, Woolf ’s novel raises the question of how such conflicts can be understood and negotiated, or even resolved. Indeed, interpersonal reconciliation – in forms discussed in more detail below – holds centre stage in the closing chapters of To the Lighthouse. In the first section of the novel, it is Mrs Ramsay who is most alert to the frequently unspoken tensions between the characters surrounding her, and she undertakes various attempts at mediation. The children’s intense dislike of Tansley leads her to reflect on the ‘strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being’ (19) that apparently begin as early as childhood and in the emotionally intimate setting of the family. She further ruminates on the futility of ‘inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that’ (19). As mother and ‘angel in the house’, she feels it is her duty to manage the strife inherent to family life, even though this task also baffles her: ‘Insoluble questions they were, it seemed to her’ (20). Her meditations on human differences extend beyond the immediate circle of her family and summer guests. Indeed, it is the difference between ‘rich and poor’ (20), as a fundamental socio-political given, that leads her to project her longing for harmony onto the family and to see herself as the crucial enabler of that harmony. Ironically, Mrs Ramsay’s role as maternal reconciler is an aspect of the very patriarchal order which produces the fractious family relations in To the Lighthouse. As Gabrielle McIntire points out, James’s anger at his father stems from his position as primary witness to the dysfunctionality of his mother’s masochistic self-sacrifice [who] sees her position directly, with the simplicity of a child, even as he symptomatically fantasizes about how to fix the situation, protect himself, and rescue his mother. Not only must Mrs Ramsay soothe, knit, care for, and assuage everyone, including children, guests, and especially her husband […] but she is the generative force who must literally provide and create life for them all.1

Mrs Ramsay also bears the brunt of her husband’s outbursts, for example when she questions his confident predictions about tomorrow’s weather conditions: To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said. (54)

This passage not only shows how Mrs Ramsay suffers under her husband’s behaviour but also sheds light on her understanding of the role of civility and ritual in human intercourse. As William Johnson observes, Mrs Ramsay is ‘more thoroughly pessimistic’ than her husband.2 To her mind, ‘consideration for other people’s feelings’ – and the domestic harmony which she seeks to foster more broadly – is a way of sustaining a form of civilization of whose fragility she is keenly and unsentimentally aware. Unlike her husband, Mrs Ramsay does see that ‘this going to the Lighthouse was a passion of [James’s]’ (28), and her husband’s refusal to engage with his son’s feelings undermines the very basis of civilization itself. Her silent response to her husband at this moment in fact serves implicitly as a reconciliation ritual. It is because Mrs Ramsay passively undergoes her husband’s ire that the latter seems to become aware of what he is doing, and capitulates, ‘very humbly’ offering to ‘ask the Coastguards’ (54) for advice. Mrs Ramsay responds to this by pondering, without irony, that ‘there was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him’ (54). Her intuitive grasp of how her husband can be mollified, then, is also an aspect of her subjection to him – a subjection, moreover, with which she strongly identifies, even as she understands all too clearly what horrifies her about her husband’s insistence on the authority of facts: ‘She was not good enough to tie his shoe strings, she felt’ (34). Mrs Ramsay’s attempts at reconciliation are most vividly embodied by the dinner party in the climactic chapter 17 of the novel’s first section: ‘They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her’ (130–131). To be sure, there are moments during the dinner party when a form of solidarity between characters emerges, as when Augustus Carmichael and Mrs Ramsay both gaze at the dish of fruit in the middle of the dining table: ‘looking together united them’ (151). The characters are also ‘brought nearer by the candle light, […] composed […] into a party round a table’ (151). Mr Ramsay is uplifted by the arrival of Minta Doyle, whose presence, Mrs Ramsay notices, makes him seem like ‘a young man, […] not burdened’ (154). Mrs Ramsay’s accomplished Boeuf en Daube also brings at least part of the company momentarily together. For Mrs Ramsay herself, the dinner party constitutes a moment of being; it points to a ‘coherence in things’ and offers a lasting bulwark against the vagaries of time: ‘This would remain’ (163).


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Yet Woolf also emphasizes how fragile and fleeting these moments of harmony are. The chapter slips in and out of the perspectives of various characters, all of whom, including Mrs Ramsay, feel to some degree awkward and isolated from, or even at odds with, each other. Lily wonders why Mrs Ramsay ‘pit[ies]’ (132) William Bankes and Charles Tansley. Tansley, in his hatred of women, resents the dinner ritual, feeling that ‘women made civilization impossible with all their “charm”’ (134). There is strong friction, moreover, between Lily and Charles Tansley. Lily still feels humiliated by the misogyny which Tansley displayed earlier that day and is reluctant to aid him in his ‘burning desire to break into the conversation’ (141–142), and to assist Mrs Ramsay in her efforts to pacify him. Indeed, at this moment especially, she sees human relations in general, and especially those between men and women, as marred by the impossibility of genuine communication: ‘She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that’ (144). Charles, in turn, feels that Lily is tacitly laughing at him, haunted by the idea that women think of him as ‘a dry prig’ (136), although he also despises the attempts by other characters at polite conversation. William Bankes wishes he had dined alone, seeing the dinner as a ‘terrible waste of time’ (138) and feeling indifferent towards Mrs Ramsay. At the same time, he feels guilty about his inability to enjoy the family gathering and does make an effort at conversation. Meanwhile, Mr Ramsay shows suppressed, silent rage when Augustus Carmichael asks for a second plate of soup. He experiences this as a disturbance of the proper, orderly completion of the dinner: ‘He loathed people eating when he had finished’ (148). The dinner leaves unaddressed, moreover, the frictions between Mr Ramsay and his children. The dinner party offers only momentary reconciliation, then, fraught with the threat of failure, and it is not until the closing chapters of To the Lighthouse that the familial conflicts that mark the novel’s first section are partially lifted. This is most evident in Cam’s ruminations as she and James sail with their father to the lighthouse – an event that in itself suggests an attempt by Mr Ramsay to make up for his past behaviour and grant James his childhood wish. To be sure, the journey to the lighthouse is initially clouded by the children’s – and especially James’s – continuing, still unspoken anger at their father: Why were they lagging about here? He would demand, or something quite unreasonable like that. And if he does, James thought, then I shall take a knife and strike him to the heart. He had always kept this old symbol of taking a knife and striking his father to the heart. Only now, as he grew older, and sat staring at his father in an impotent rage, it was not him, that old man reading, whom we wanted to kill, but it was

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


the thing that descended on him – without his knowing it perhaps: that fierce sudden black-winged harpy, with its talons and its beak all cold and hard, that struck and struck at you (he could feel the beak on his bare legs, where it had struck when he was a child) and then made off[.] (282–283)

At this moment, ten years after the events in the novel’s first section, James’s resentment against his father is undiminished, as is his determination to resist the latter’s ‘tyranny’ (283). Indeed, James’s memory of the moment, in chapter 6 of ‘The Window’, when his father tickled his bare calf is still vivid. The general predatory oppressiveness which James associates with his father manifests itself here in a deep-seated bodily memory. In its emotional import, James remembers the tickling as a form of invasive physical violence that still kindles the same murderous fantasies as ten years earlier. Even James’s memories of his now deceased mother are invaded and undercut by his father’s presence: ‘all the time he thought of her, he was conscious of his father following his thought, shadowing it, making it shiver and falter’ (288). James’s undiminished anger at his father suggests that the voyage to the lighthouse will at best confirm old family tensions and at worst cause them to erupt anew. Indeed, Mr Ramsay’s neediness, and especially his craving for female sympathy, has intensified since the death of Mrs Ramsay. When he sits down in the boat that will bring him to the lighthouse, ‘he bowed, he crouched himself, acting instantly his part – the part of a desolate man, widowed, bereft’, imagining a host of people ‘sympathizing with him’ (257). He speaks the closing lines of William Cowper’s ‘The Castaway’ (1799) that reverberate through the final section of To the Lighthouse and are frequently declaimed by Mr Ramsay to vent his own melancholy: ‘We perished, each alone: / But I beneath a rougher sea, / And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he’.3 Yet it is during the voyage to the lighthouse that both James and Cam come to see their father in a different light. Various scholars have argued that Cam forgives her father, and that Woolf herself forgives her own father through Cam: ‘as Cam [Woolf] forgives her father and as Lily she abstracts and crystallizes the moment of forgiveness into art’.4 Yet the question is whether ‘forgiveness’ is an appropriate term for what transpires between James, Cam and their father as they sail to the lighthouse. Indeed, Woolf avoids not only the meanings historically evoked by the concept of forgiveness – such as the notion that a wrongdoer’s remorse, successfully communicated to a victim, enables a letting go of resentment by that victim and a renewed relationship between the two parties – but also the asymmetrical power relationship that often pertains between victim and wrongdoer or between the forgiving and the forgiven party.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

The only time when the verb ‘to forgive’, or one of its cognates, occurs in To the Lighthouse is when Cam, during the journey to the lighthouse, wonders how to resist her father’s tacit entreaty to her: ‘forgive me, care for me’ (260). For Cam, her father’s silent plea for forgiveness is in fact of a piece with his other emotional demands on her, even though it also renders him ‘most suppliant’ (260) and therefore dependent on her. When, later in the chapter, Cam ‘forgives’ her father, the word ‘forgiveness’ does not occur, and the change in her feelings for her father is best understood as a reconciliation of a different, more elusive kind that escapes from the categories we have so far encountered. Cam initially feels divided between the love she feels for her father – ‘no one attracted her more; his hands were beautiful to her and his feet, and his voice’ (262) – and her silent pact with James to ‘fight tyranny to the death’ (260). Her instinctive, unspoken affection for her father, moreover, is clouded by her memories of the ‘crass blindness and tyranny of his which had poisoned her childhood’ (262). This awareness of her father’s tyranny momentarily comes to dominate the narrative in chapter 6 of the novel’s closing section, which consists solely of the following parenthetical paragraph: [Macalister’s boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with. The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea.] (277–278)

This passage recalls, of course, the parentheses in ‘Time Passes’, creating, like them, a background of indifferent cruelty that interrupts the main narrative. During Cam’s earlier reflections on her father, moreover, her memories of the latter’s ‘blindness and tyranny’ are juxtaposed with her watching the Macalister boy ‘tug[ging] the hook out of the gills of another fish’ (262). Mr Ramsay’s selfabsorption and the casual, wasteful killing of fish mirror each other. In spite of this, during the voyage to the lighthouse, Cam does let go of her resentment towards her father, allowing it to be outweighed by competing, more positive memories. She relates these memories, moreover, to her present situation, linking her present affection for her father to what she felt for him as a much younger child: ‘Now she felt as she did in the study when the old men were reading The Times’ (314). It would seem that this change in Cam’s feelings for her father stems from a change in Mr Ramsay himself. When the boat arrives at the lighthouse, Mr Ramsay, contrary to James and Cam’s expectations, does not declaim ‘The Castaway’. Instead of asserting his lonely suffering, he praises James for steering the boat safely to the island, and, again contrary to their expectations, does not make any (emotional) demands on his children. All he

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


asks of them is to bring the ‘parcels for the lighthouse men’ (318) with them. Mr Ramsay’s last act in the novel, therefore, is a ‘giving – or at least an attempt to give’ – instead of the implicit or overt demanding which has characterized him so far.5 The change in Mr Ramsay – from authoritarian and emotionally needy to nourishing – is also suggested one page earlier, when he hands out sandwiches to James, Cam and the fishermen, an act that makes Cam feel protected: ‘Now I can go on thinking whatever I like, and I shan’t fall over a precipice or be drowned, for there he is, keeping his eye on me, she thought’ (314). Yet the shift in Cam’s attitude to her father is not in the first instance occasioned by any self-transformation on his part and in fact precedes the moments when that transformation manifests itself. Nor is it a response to any overt, remorseful acknowledgement of wrongdoing on Mr Ramsay’s part. Indeed, there is a sense in which Cam’s reconciliation with her father, instead of bringing them closer together, signals a diminishing of his power and dominance, both in emotional and narrative terms. As their boat sails towards the lighthouse, Cam feels the fractiousness of the relationship between Mr Ramsay and his children slip away and recede into the past: ‘all had slipped, all had passed, all had streamed away’ (290). As Cam ponders this, she is ‘drawing her fingers through the waves’ (289), and the language in this passage suggests that her reconciliation with her father is enabled not by a transformation in the characters but rather by the journey to the lighthouse itself – by the impersonality of the sea by which she is now surrounded and by the physical distance from the family house which it creates: ‘From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure’ (290). Similarly, James feels an ‘extraordinary’ sense of relief when, after a temporary lull, the wind picks up again and ‘the boat seemed to shake herself ’ (288). As a result of the boat’s motion, ‘they all seemed to fall away from each other again and be at their ease’ (288), the tenseness of the Ramsay family interactions once again suspended. Cam’s silent reconciliaton with her father also entails a recognition of his otherness and inscrutability: ‘What could he see? Cam wondered. It was all a blur to her. What was he thinking now? she wondered. What was it he sought, so fixedly, so intently, so silently?’ (317). As Margaret Jensen notes, at this point, ‘Mr Ramsay is no longer depicted as a tyrant in his children’s eyes, but rather as a mystery’.6 Indeed, that her father’s deepest motivations remain mysterious and inaccessible to Cam is in part what enables her to see him as more than a demanding, authoritarian patriarch. Crucially, Cam does not communicate her feelings to her father, nor does she feel any urge to do so, while James even makes a point of not showing how


A Literary History of Reconciliation

much his father’s unexpected praise affects him: ‘His father had praised him. They must think that he was perfectly indifferent’ (316). Similarly, Cam does not convey the change in her feelings about her father to James, even though she does want to do so: ‘Look at him now, she wanted to say aloud to James’ (292). Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse, therefore, figures as a strongly solipsistic experience – taking place in the children’s inner lives and relevant primarily to themselves. This is underscored by the fact that the reconciliation between Cam, James and Mr Ramsay is formally overlaid with the artistic vision attained by Lily Briscoe at the end of the novel. As Galya Diment points out, ‘it is only after Cam’s decision to forgive her father’s “tyranny” and selfishness that Lily can paint with ease and successfully complete her artistic “vision”’.7 Cam’s acceptance of Mr Ramsay and Lily’s completion of her painting form the two, parallel moments of closure in Woolf ’s novel, as is also highlighted by the echo of Mr Ramsay’s ‘Well done!’ (316) in Lily’s ‘It was done; it was finished’ (320). Lily sees her artistic achievement at the end of To the Lighthouse as momentous regardless of whether her painting will be appreciated by others, now or in the future: ‘It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?’ (320). Similarly, that Mr Ramsay is oblivious of the change in Cam’s and James’s feelings about him does not diminish its relevance or power. The analogy between the familial reconciliation and Lily’s painting is further underscored by the fact that Lily is able to complete her painting after she, too, has shed her anger at Mr Ramsay. She does so by remembering the ways in which the Ramsays used to settle their frequent marital conflicts: He would say her name, once only, for all the world like a wolf barking in the snow, but still she held back; and he would say it once more, and this time something in the tone would rouse her, and she would go to him, leaving them all of a sudden, and they would walk off together among the pear trees, the cabbages, and the raspberry beds. (307)

As Lily herself reflects, she is ‘not inventing’ (305) events that never took place; rather, she revisits and reimagines ‘something she had seen’ (305), rehearsing its implications. This form of creative memory enables her both to escape from what Paul Sheehan calls the ‘tyranny of the past’ and to realize her artistic vision.8 The journey to the lighthouse, then, is a more effective enabler of reconciliation than the dinner party in the novel’s first section. This, too, is underlined by the formal correspondence between the Ramsay family reconciliation and Lily Briscoe’s painting. The painting – an abstract, avant-garde pietà of Mrs Ramsay and James – represents a memory of Mrs Ramsay not somehow intruded on

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


by her husband and widower and created by a female character who famously does not conform to the female roles prescribed by patriarchy.9 Within the terms offered by the novel itself, such a memory can take shape only in abstract art, existing at several removes from the intricate immediacy of human relations and the pressures of memory.10 As Lily meditates, ‘Distance had an extraordinary power’ (289). It is by adopting a suprapersonal perspective that the interpersonal tensions in To the Lighthouse can be at least partially overcome. Indeed, the fleeting harmony of the dinner party in the novel’s first section, too, is made possible by a non-human, impersonal agent. It is the evening dark, with ‘night now shut off by panes of glass’ (151), that creates a temporary form of ‘order and dry land’ – a ‘common cause against the fluidity out there’ (152). Such moments of impersonality in fact occur, or are hinted at, a number of times in Woolf ’s novel, albeit always fleetingly; the completion of Lily Briscoe’s painting is arguably the only instance at which impersonality takes on lasting form. In the novel’s first section, Mrs Ramsay feels an exhilarating sense of freedom when she is alone – her relations to others temporarily suspended – and the self has ‘shed its attachments’ (99). If such moments seem to afford a form of self-realization, they also represent an escape from the self: ‘Not as oneself did one find rest ever […] but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir’ (100). The ‘wedge of darkness’ which Mrs Ramsay becomes here foreshadows, of course, the abstract purple triangle by which she will eventually be represented in Lily Briscoe’s painting. Lily Briscoe, in turn, feels a desire to escape from the self similar to Mrs Ramsay’s, and she admires William Bankes because, unlike Mr Ramsay, he is ‘entirely impersonal’ (42) – emotionally autarkic and abstracted from human relations. Yet this impersonal perspective also calls into question the significance of the reconciliation scenes at the end of To the Lighthouse, set as they are against the larger, impersonal temporal and historical background hauntingly described in ‘Time Passes’, the famous second section of the novel. The Ramsay family tragedies, narrated in terse parenthetical paragraphs, point to a randomness and lack of man-made order that implicitly challenge the formal closure offered by both Lily Briscoe’s artistic vision and Cam’s acceptance of her father. Moreover, the death of Andrew Ramsay during the First World War links the fate of the Ramsay family to destructive, global military conflicts that make Cam’s small, unspoken reconciliation with her father seem inconsequential, even as these conflicts tear directly into the fabric of family life: ‘[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]’ (207). As Paul Sheehan notes,


A Literary History of Reconciliation

‘That its shock-waves can be felt on the Isle of Skye, six hundred or more miles away, is perhaps the ultimate indication of the war’s devastating reach.’11 The impact of war on the Ramsay family is in fact foreshadowed as early as the novel’s third chapter, when Mrs Ramsay, reading to James, hears her husband reciting Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854). As in the description of Andrew’s death, war in this passage seems to exist as a form of background noise, yet it also disrupts what is arguably the novel’s iconic scene of domestic harmony – that of Mrs Ramsay reading a book of fairy tales to her son James. As Kelly Elizabeth Sultzbach argues, ‘The line “Stormed at with shot and shell” creates a break in the prose, appearing off by itself, as if a bomb has ripped through the paragraph. It anticipates visually the shelling that will kill [Andrew Ramsey].’12 That Mr Ramsay should recite a poem evoking, in Sultzbach’s words, a ‘Victorian colonial military disaster’, moreover, suggests that the Great War itself is part of a larger, ongoing history of destructive military conflict over which none of the characters in To the Lighthouse exert any control, even though it directly affects them.13 Interpersonal reconciliation in To the Lighthouse offers no decisive new beginning in human relations, a conclusive healing of wrongs or even an acknowledgement of those wrongs. Rather, it is a solitary, deeply inward affair that does not require any explicit communication between the parties involved. Indeed, the question of whether Mr Ramsay knows that Cam has accepted him, and of how he would respond to such knowledge, seems altogether irrelevant. Reconciliation also consists in, and is made possible by, an escape from, or a suspending of, the human interaction that is so fraught with tension throughout Woolf ’s novel. Such an escape is figured in the journey to the lighthouse and in the abstractions of Lily Briscoe’s painting. It also involves an acceptance of the mysteriousness of others; it is in part this acceptance that enables Cam to see her father as a complex figure who cannot be reduced to the role of patriarchal tyrant. Finally, To the Lighthouse suggests an analogy between reconciliation and artistic and literary creation when Lily famously finishes her painting at the precise moment when the novel itself ends.

Ulysses and remorse In an 1929 essay entitled ‘The Position of Joyce’, Cyril Connolly claimed that remorse is the ‘central emotion’ in Ulysses.14 While this is arguably an overstatement, remorse is certainly one of the core emotions experienced by

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


Stephen Dedalus. The novel’s opening chapter famously presents Stephen as haunted by ‘agenbite of inwit’ (14), or ‘remorse of conscience’ (169). The phrase, taken from a Middle English treatise on sin, is a literal translation of the Latin root of the word ‘remorse’, ‘remordeo’ (to bite again). ‘Inwit’, in turn, points to the etymology of the term ‘conscience’, which derives from the Greek συνείδησις (syneidêsis), via the Latin conscientia – the literal meaning of both terms is ‘withknowledge’. Germanic languages, as Fritz Senn notes, lacked such abstractions and rendered the term literally.15 The phrase ‘agenbite of inwit’ first occurs to Stephen when he observes the Englishman Haines’s obsessive cleanliness: ‘They wash and tub and scrub. Agenbite of inwit. Conscience. Yet here’s a spot’ (14). The allusion, in ‘Yet here’s a spot’, to Lady Macbeth’s consuming guilt in Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play points to the fruitlessness which Ulysses associates with remorse. No matter how deep her remorse, Lady Macbeth knows that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’ (5.1.69), and it is her unassuageable guilt which drives her to suicide. Stephen likewise imagines his own conscience as never fully clean and remorse therefore as a perpetual state. Stephen is haunted especially by his refusal to pray for the soul of his mother Mary Dedalus at her deathbed, rooted in his principled rejection of Roman Catholicism. He feels that he has at the very least hastened her demise, an accusation also casually vented by Buck Mulligan: ‘The aunt thinks you killed your mother’ (5).16 Remorse, therefore, is associated in Stephen’s mind with a set of interconnected obligations towards family, religion and community which he is seeking to shake off. Indeed, the very concept of remorse can usefully be seen as an embodiment of the Roman Catholic theology which Stephen had come to reject in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and his ‘agenbite of inwit’ in Ulysses underscores the extent to which he is still in its grips. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Roman Catholic theologies of forgiveness are a central theme, with a pivotal role for heartfelt remorse. In a prayer of repentance following the great hellfire sermon in chapter 3, Stephen expresses remorse about his sins ‘with his heart’ (Portrait, 114), repeating the words of ‘contrition’ (113) spoken by the priest: ‘I am heartily sorry – / for having offended Thee’ (114). The sermon itself vividly describes the remorse, or ‘pain of conscience’, from which the damned in hell suffer: Just as in dead bodies worms are engendered by putrefaction so in the souls of the lost there arises a perpetual remorse from the putrefaction of sin, the sting of conscience, the worm, as Pope Innocent the Third calls it, of the triple sting. The first sting inflicted by this cruel worm will be the memory of past pleasures.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

O what a dreadful memory will that be! […] They will remember all this and loathe themselves and their sins. For how miserable will all those pleasures seem to the soul condemned to suffer in hellfire for ages and ages. How they will rage and fume to think that they have lost the bliss of heaven for the dross of earth, for a few pieces of metal, for vain honours, for bodily comforts, for a tingling of the nerves. They will repent indeed: and this is the second sting of the worm of conscience, a late and fruitless sorrow for sins committed. (108–109)

Laurel Fulkerson observes that ‘the re-aspect of remorse is often emphasized in modern understandings of the emotion: it is a biting that keeps on happening’.17 In the sermon in Portrait, this idea of remorse-as-repetition is played out: the damned will feel contrition over and over again, with undiminished intensity, in an endless cycle that is as fruitless as it is self-perpetuating. Even after forgiveness has been granted by God, Stephen believes a lifetime of penance is required, as if even divine forgiveness always retains a provisional quality: Ah yes, he would still be spared; he would repent in his heart and be forgiven; and then those above, those in heaven, would see what he would do to make up for the past: a whole life, every hour of life. (106)

While the sermon is of course an exhortation to repent of one’s sins without delay, it also underscores the sense of futility and endlessness which remorse takes on as the sins of which one repents recede into the past, seeming ever more impossible to undo. Remorse, on this understanding, is always already too late, the belated remorse felt by the damned merely a heightened version of the remorse felt by the living. Indeed, Stephen’s remorse in Ulysses functions very much as a lingering after-effect, continuing unabated almost a year after the death of Stephen’s mother, and as much present in his ‘brooding brain’ (9) as it was during her death agony. Stephen’s memories of his dying mother seem unmoored from time, existing in a perpetual present: ‘Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul’ (9). In Portrait, remorse-centred theologies of forgiveness are also strongly associated with self-abasement before God, for example when Stephen prays for forgiveness of other boys in his class: ‘in utter abjection of spirit he craved forgiveness mutely of the boyish hearts about him’ (107). Remorse and divine forgiveness require abject supplication before God. Shortly before going to confession, wondering anxiously about the roots of his sinfulness, Stephen ‘cowered in the shadow of the thought, abasing himself in the awe of God Who had made all things and all men. […] And, cowering in darkness and abject, he prayed mutely to his angel guardian’ (118). As we will see, it is in part this link

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


between remorse and abject self-abasement which Stephen will attempt to reject in the ‘Circe’ episode in Ulysses. Stephen invariably thinks of the phrase ‘agenbite of inwit’ in relation to women: his mother, the prostitute Georgina Johnson and his sister Dilly. In one instance where ‘agenbite of inwit’ does not refer to Stephen’s own state of mind, in chapter 9 (‘Scylla and Charybdis’), he ascribes it to Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway on her deathbed, whom he imagines to have been remorseful about her infidelities: ‘Venus has twisted her lips in prayer. Agenbite of inwit: remorse of conscience’ (169). In the same episode, Stephen, holding forth on Hamlet at the National Library, remembers that he owes money to the writer George William Russell, reflecting that ‘you spent most of it in Georgina Johnson’s bed, clergyman’s daughter. Agenbite of inwit’ (155). The context in which Stephen’s remorse once again surfaces is suggestive. Russell objects to Stephen’s argument on Hamlet, and his criticism is enough to remind the vulnerable Stephen of his own profligacy, of his problematic relationships with women and of his failure to repay financial debts, linked by the phrase ‘agenbite of inwit’ to his refusal to honour his mother’s religious wishes: Do you intend to pay it back? O, yes. When? Now? Well … No. When, then? (155)

As in Portrait, remorse is associated in this passage with a debt that is unlikely to be fully repaid and by which Stephen will continue to be haunted. In a particularly emotionally fraught passage in chapter 7 (‘Wandering Rocks’), Stephen, obsessively repeating the word ‘agenbite’, feels a mixture of guilt, remorse and revulsion when he encounters his sister Dilly at a secondhand bookstall: She is drowning. Agenbite. Save her. Agenbite. All against us. She will drown me with her, eyes and hair. Lank coils of seaweed hair around me, my heart, my soul. Salt green death. We. Agenbite of inwit. Inwit’s agenbite. Misery! Misery! (200)

Stephen feels profoundly guilty about not helping Dilly in her poverty and her troubled relationship with her improvident and alcoholic father, who, earlier in the chapter, mocks her physical posture and hurls abuse at her when she asks


A Literary History of Reconciliation

for money (195). Indeed, Stephen sees Dilly as similar to himself, both in her appearance and in her attempt to escape from her family circumstances by buying a French primer. Stephen makes a point of showing ‘no surprise’ (200) at Dilly’s incongruous purchase; it was Stephen himself, after all, who awakened her intellectual curiosity by ‘[telling] her about Paris’ (200). As Robert Scholes notes, Stephen’s strong sense of identification with his younger sister is captured in the one-word paragraph ‘We’.18 At the same time, the figure of Dilly shades into that of his mother, since Stephen broods on his inability to prevent her death in similar terms in chapter 3 (‘Proteus’): ‘I could not save her. Waters: bitter death: lost’ (38).19 Stephen therefore associates Dilly’s plight with his own ‘drowning’ – his own inability to lead an autonomous life, separate from his mother. There is no clear distinction in Stephen’s mind between his guilt over his reluctance to help Dilly on the one hand and his refusal to pray at his mother’s deathbed on the other. If Ulysses presents remorse from the outset as one of Stephen’s defining emotions, there is also a climactic attempt at rejection of remorse and of its claims on Stephen in chapter 15 (‘Circe’). When Stephen, in this episode, is confronted with the appearance of his dead mother, he initially ‘chok[es] with fright, remorse and horror’ (474) and denies that he was reponsible for her death. His ‘agenbite of inwit’ is therefore at least in part unfounded: ‘They say I killed you, mother. He offended your memory. Cancer did it, not I. Destiny’ (474). Stephen’s feelings of guilt vis-à-vis his mother merge with the broader claims of Roman Catholicism on him, represented by his mother’s exhortation to feel remorse for his sins more generally: ‘Repent! O, the fire of hell!’ (474). It is this mixture of familial and religious obligations which Stephen confronts at this moment, and the dialogue culminates in his famous ‘Non serviam!’ (475). The moment resonates with the description of Lucifer’s rebellious pride in the sermon in Portrait: What [Lucifer’s] sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin. (99)

Indeed, Stephen himself adopts the Luciferian phrase in the closing chapter of Portrait, asserting his ambitions as an artist and his concomitant rejection of ‘home’, ‘fatherland’ and ‘church’ (208; Stephen also employs the phrase on 201). Stephen’s ‘non serviam’ in ‘Circe’ underlines the extent to which he associates the theology of forgiveness both with self-abasement before God and with subjugation to the institutions of family, church and state. Indeed, Stephen’s entire sense of emotional obligations to others is shot through with

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


the hierarchical language of remorse-based forgiveness. He seems incapable of construing familial ties in terms other than those offered by the Roman Catholic theology which he seeks to abandon. That Stephen’s eventual rejection of the claims of remorse in Ulysses is in part a replay of similar moments in Portrait in itself suggests that it may not be a definitive break. In addition, while Stephen’s Wagnerian ‘Nothung!’ (475) represents a kind of miniature apocalypse in which ‘time’s livid final flame leaps’ (475), he in fact only smashes a chandelier in a brothel, and, as John Rickard notes, what may initially seem like a triumph over the ghost of his mother results only in a ‘wild flight’ from the brothel, his mind still preoccupied by the issues of family and guilt: ‘History to blame. Fabled by mothers of memory’ (479).20 The memory of Mary Dedalus, and the oppressive theology of remorse associated with it, has still not been decisively cast off.

Ulysses and the politics of reconciliation Stephen’s dismissal of the language of forgiveness also has a political dimension, as becomes clear during the debate on Shakespeare in chapter 9 (‘Scylla and Charybdis’). When William Lyster, the ‘quaker librarian’ (160), refers to ‘the spirit of reconciliation’ as an interpretative key to the work of Shakespeare, Stephen counters that ‘there can be no reconciliation […] if there has not been a sundering’ (160; Stephen makes the same statement on 159). As Nathan Wallace has shown, Lyster’s evocation of Shakespeare’s ‘spirit of reconciliation’ can usefully be read as an allusion to the views on Shakespeare advanced by the influential Irish poet and critic Edward Dowden (1843–1913) in Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875).21 Reconciliaton, Dowden argued, is central to Shakespeare’s work – especially to the late plays – and even to Shakespeare’s own personality. Reading the sonnets as a window onto Shakespeare’s psyche, he claims that Shakespeare, ‘wronged’ both by W. H. and by the ‘dark lady’, ‘transcended his private injury, and learned to forgive […], rescu[ing] himself from indignant resentment’.22 The late plays, moreover, represent a similar spirit of forgiveness, embodied especially in the figures of Hermione, Imogen and Prospero. Like Shakespeare himself, Hermione ‘transcends all blind resentment’ towards Leontes, while also feeling ‘true pity for the man who wrongs her’.23 Dowden sees a similar transcendence of resentment in Prospero, although the latter does not administer the ‘balm’ of his forgiveness to Alonso until he has first prepared him by means of ‘terror and the awakening of remorse’.24 Sebastian


A Literary History of Reconciliation

and Antonio, by contrast, ‘from whose conscience no remorse has been elicited, are met by no comfortable pardon’.25 Dowden’s use of the term ‘pardon’ alerts us to the political dimension of his Shakespeare reading, obscured by his otherwise smoothly depoliticized vocabulary of forgiveness (‘balm’, ‘transcending blind resentment’). For Dowden, the forgiveness extended by the serene Prospero is ‘an embodiment of impartial wisdom and loving justice’.26 Caliban, by contrast, ‘is possessed by […] a fanaticism for liberty’; his chant of ‘freedom, high-day, freedom’ (3.1.142) associated by Dowden with the revolutionary spirit of the ‘Marseillaise’, and his unwillingness to serve contrasted unfavourably with Ferdinand’s eager acceptance of the labour which Prospero imposes on him.27 Dowden’s employment of the language of forgiveness, in other words, invests Prospero’s imperial power with metaphysical, sacramental authority. Indeed, for Dowden, the prerogative to extend and withhold forgiveness is a defining characteristic of imperial rule more broadly. As Wallace argues, Caliban’s colonial resistance, which goes unforgiven, becomes a Satanic rebellion – the chaos of Irish Nationalism. Dowden’s reading of The Tempest is therefore also an allegory for Irish Protestant Unionism as Ireland’s divine ‘best self ’ and Nationalist Ireland as the demonic ‘worst self ’.28

Dowden, then, reads Shakespeare’s work as a prophetic legitimation of colonialism. That Caliban, contrary to what Dowden claims, arguably is forgiven by Prospero, and announces that he will ‘seek for grace’ (5.1.297), only underscores the political significance of forgiveness in The Tempest. Caliban’s eventual acceptance of his need for Prospero’s divine ‘grace’ signals his acceptance of the latter’s divine authority, even as Prospero prepares to leave the island. That Stephen is alert to the political ramifications of Dowden’s Shakespeare reading becomes clear when he offers his own, more disenchanted reading of Prospero’s epilogue: If you like the epilogue [of The Tempest] look long on it: prosperous Prospero, the good man rewarded, Lizzie, grandpa’s lump of love, and nuncle Richie, the bad man taken off by poetic justice to the place where the bad niggers go. Strong curtain. (175)

The phrase ‘bad niggers’ alludes to the 1848 minstrel song ‘Old Uncle Ned’ by Stephen Foster (1826–1864), an elegy for a cherished slave.29 Its sentimental language – in a manner comparable to Dowden’s lexicon of forgiveness – legitimates slavery by recasting it as an affectionate bond between slaves and

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


their owners and by inviting the listener to empathize with ‘Massa’s’ grief, rather than with the suffering endured by ‘Old Ned’: When Old Ned die Massa take it mighty hard, De tears run down like de rain; Old Missus turn pale and she gets berry sad, Cayse she nebber see Old Ned again. Den lay down de shubble and de hoe, Hang up de fiddle and de bow: No more hard work for poor Old Ned– He’s gone whar de good Niggas go, No more hard work for poor Old Ned– He’s gone whar de good Niggas go.30

Earlier in the debate, Stephen refers to ‘Patsy Caliban’ (168), linking the figure of Caliban with nineteenth-century stage stereotypes of Irishmen,31 while also conflating Prospero’s imperial power over Caliban with English colonial rule in Ireland. Through this pattern of allusions to racist stereotypes of the Irish, English colonialism and American slavery, Stephen repoliticizes the work of Shakespeare – resituating it in the concrete politico-historical circumstances from which it is severed by Lyster’s (and Dowden’s) ‘spirit of reconciliation’. In insisting, earlier in the chapter, on the sundering that necessarily precedes reconciliation, moreover, Stephen implies that readings of Shakespeare’s late plays as revolving around ‘reconciliation’ smooth over the reality of political conflict, while he also questions whether such conflicts are ever definitively settled. He also counters Dowden’s sacramental vocabulary of forgiveness by bluntly stating that Prospero’s forgiveness in fact rests on the oppression of Caliban, and that readings of Prospero as serenely forgiving ignore this. For Stephen – and perhaps for Joyce himself – Dowden’s imperialist theories of reconciliation are of a piece with theologies of forgiveness: both are equally coercive, and both enshrine hierarchies and relations of power in the language of religion. Stephen’s rejections of both, therefore, are intertwined, and his ‘non serviam’ has a political, Caliban-like resonance. If Stephen, as we have seen, is haunted by the death of his mother, Bloom has strong feelings of guilt over the death of his infant son Rudy eleven years prior to the events of the novel. Much like Stephen, Bloom feels responsible for Rudy’s death (‘if it’s healthy it’s from the mother. If not from the man’ [79]), while also attributing it to Molly’s indecent arousal at the sight of two copulating dogs. The family tragedy is also the root of Molly’s adultery, as she and Leopold have not


A Literary History of Reconciliation

had full sexual intercourse since Rudy’s death (605). Bloom ruminates in chapter 8 (‘Sirens’) that he ‘could never like it again after Rudy’ (137), and he has retreated into a virtual, voyeuristic sexuality, engaging in an erotic correspondence with a woman he does not know and masturbating during a flirtation with Gerty MacDowell.32 Molly’s adultery brings us to the question of how Ulysses imagines reconciliation in the marital sphere. As Margot Norris explains, Ulysses both contributes to and deviates from the genre of the adultery novel, with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878) as two key nineteenth-century examples. In contrast to these two novels, Norris explains, Ulysses ‘refrains from punishing the adulterous wife with remorse and suicide’.33 In addition to this, I argue, the reconciliation between Leopold and Molly Bloom in the final two chapters of Ulysses – tentative and inchoate though it may be – can usefully be seen as a departure from the marital and familial reconciliation paradigms we have encountered in earlier chapters. The reconciliation between the Blooms also forms a climactic moment in Ulysses, prompting Richard Ellmann, in his preface to the Gabler edition, to claim that ‘like other comedies, Ulysses ends in a vision of reconciliation rather than of sundering’ (xiv). Before examining the reconciliation between the Blooms in more detail, it is useful to turn to two other moments in Ulysses which evoke forgiveness and reconciliaton in a marital or amorous context. The issue of forgiveness looms large in Gerty MacDowell’s fantasy about Bloom as her ‘dreamhusband’ in chapter 13 (‘Nausicaa’): If he had suffered, more sinned against than sinning, or even, even, if he had been himself a sinner, a wicked man, she cared not. Even if he was a protestant or methodist she could convert him easily if he truly loved her. There were wounds that wanted healing with heartbalm. She was a womanly woman not like other flighty girls unfeminine he had known, those cyclists showing off what they hadn’t got and she just yearned to know all, to forgive all if she could make him fall in love with her, make him forget the memory of the past. (293–294)

Gerty imagines forgiveness, in the Victorian terms also encountered in the previous chapter, as a characteristically wifely virtue and as the prelude to a happy marriage, in which a husband-to-be is emotionally healed by his future wife. Later in the chapter, when she is about to leave Sandymount shore, Gerty smiles ‘a sweet forgiving smile’ (301) at Bloom. Yet the sentimentally generous forgiveness about which she fantasizes – ‘to forgive all’ – is undercut by a halfsuppressed religious intolerance (‘even if he was a protestant or methodist’) and by the assumption that her role is that of magnanimous forgiver, to whom her

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


aspiring husband confesses his sins (‘she just yearned to know all’). Readers might wonder how Gerty would respond if she learned that the object of her reverie did indeed convert to Catholicism – although he did so in order to marry Marion Tweedy rather than out of religious conviction – but is also the agnostic son of a Jew who converted to Protestantism. The lexicon of forgiveness in this passage, as in various other literary works which we have encountered, masks relations of power and exclusion, in this case of non-Roman Catholic faiths, while it also undergirds a deeply ideological view, internalized by Gerty, of gender relations. Gerty’s reverie of total marital forgiveness stands in stark contrast to the reality of domestic violence which she experiences in her own family. Indeed, she fleetingly suggests that her violent, alcoholic father is beyond forgiveness, even though she also excuses him by suggesting that he ‘forget[s] himself completely’ in his inebriation: ‘if there was one thing of all things that Gerty knew it was that the man who lifts his hand to a woman save in the way of kindness, deserves to be branded as the lowest of the low’ (290). Gerty’s fantasy about Bloom is, of course, also misguided in other respects, for example in that she has no knowledge of the complexity of Bloom’s religious identity or of the vice-like grip which the past has on him. In addition, as Gerty cannot know, but as the reader eventually learns in Molly’s monologue, Bloom rather enjoys watching the female cyclists despised by Gerty, ‘always skeezing’, as Molly puts it, ‘at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels’ (614). Gerty’s daydream of forgiveness is also undercut by its juxtaposition with a rite of Benediction being conducted as part of a ‘temperance retreat’ (290) for men at the Star of the Sea church in Sandymount, presided over by the Jesuit priest John Hughes. Hearing ‘the sound of voices and the pealing anthem of the organ’ (290) coming from the church, Gerty imagines the men gathered in the church as similar to Bloom, having ‘erred and wandered’ and in need of divine forgiveness, ‘their eyes wet with contrition’ (292). In this way, Gerty also casts herself in the role of the ‘Virgin most powerful, Virgin most merciful’ to whom the men in the church sing ‘in supplication’ (291), and she aligns her own imagined forgiveness of Bloom with the power of the Roman Catholic church to elicit contrition from, and extend forgiveness to, its flock. As we have seen, both Portrait and Ulysses present this model of forgiveness as deeply compromised. A second evocation of intimate forgiveness occurs in ‘Eumaeus’, when Bloom imagines a scene of marital reconciliation between Lieutenant William Henry O’Shea and his wife, Katherine O’Shea after the latter’s extramarital affair with the Irish nationalist politician John Stewart Parnell (1846–1891). He imagines them being found out


A Literary History of Reconciliation

owing to some anonymous letter from the usual boy Jones, who happened to come across them at the crucial moment in a loving position locked in one another’s arms, drawing attention to their illicit proceedings and leading up to a domestic rumpus and the erring fair one begging forgiveness of her lord and master upon her knees and promising to sever the connection and not receive his visits any more if only the aggrieved husband would overlook the matter and let bygones be bygones with tears in her eyes though possibly with her tongue in her fair cheek at the same time as quite possibly there were several others. (535)

With Katherine begging for forgiveness from her husband in a gesture of selfabasement and subjugation, the scene envisioned by Bloom is reminiscent of the hierarchical, patriarchal forgiveness scenarios discussed in earlier chapters – for example Adam’s forgiveness of Eve in Paradise Lost and the reunion between Dombey and his daughter Florence in chapter 59 of Dombey and Son. The language in this passage also resonates with the scenes of divine forgiveness in Portrait discussed above, even if Bloom, with ironic detachment, entertains the possibility that Katherine supplicates strategically rather than sincerely with her husband. As we will see, Ulysses avoids such a hierarchical form of marital reconciliation between the Blooms, also avoiding in this way the confirmation of patriarchal hierarchies which such a form of comic closure would entail. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the reunion scene in Dombey and Son serves to restore conventional gender roles, with the now impoverished Dombey regaining a measure of patriarchal status through Florence’s display of submissive filial contrition. In resisting remorse-based forgiveness in the marital sphere as a comic ending, therefore, Ulysses also resists the pressures of a literary history in which forgiveness between men and women (fathers and daughters, husbands and wives) requires female self-abasement and supplication with a patriarch – even if that patriarch himself is more culpable than the female characters imploring his forgiveness. Ulysses evokes such patriarchal forgiveness scenarios only in a hypothetical mode, confined to an imaginary sphere: Gerty MacDowell’s daydream and Bloom’s evocation of the reconciliation between Katherine and William Henry O’Shea. The marital forgiveness between the Blooms follows a decidedly different pattern.

Impersonal reconciliation in Ulysses As we have seen, the issue of reconciliation is central to the theories on Shakespeare expounded by Stephen in ‘Scylla and Charybdis’. Crucially, Stephen evokes reconciliation partially in a marital context: he presents the famous

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


‘second best bed’ in Shakespeare’s will as evidence that Shakespeare and Anne were still unreconciled at the end of Shakespeare’s life, with Anne unforgiven for her adultery and consumed by remorse. This narrative of Shakespeare’s marital sundering is echoed in the marriage of Leopold and Molly, with their emotional sundering rooted in the death of Rudy, Leopold’s subsequent withdrawal from active sexuality and Molly’s adultery. Yet while Stephen imagines Anne Hathaway as unforgiven by her husband, Molly and Leopold are eventually reunited at the end of chapter 17 (‘Ithaca’). After Stephen has left the Bloom residence, Leopold joins Molly in their marital bed, confronted with unmistakable evidence of her infidelity: What did his limbs, when gradually extended, encounter? New clean bedlinen, additional odours, the presence of a human form, female, hers, the imprint of a human form, male, not his, some crumbs, some flakes of potted meat, recooked, which he removed. (601)

While Bloom does initially feel ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy’, these feelings quickly give way to a sense of ‘equanimity’ (602), and, mildly sexually aroused by Molly’s sleeping body, he foregoes any idea of retribution and kisses ‘the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump’ (604). As Maud Ellmann remarks, ‘Ultimately it is Poldy who vindicates Stephen’s dialectical principle that reconciliation depends upon a prior sundering, by curling up with Molly after her adulterous tryst. Instead of seeking vengeance for her sundering infidelity, Bloom kisses [Molly’s behind], reconciled to the dozing occupant of his best bed’.34 Bloom is able to accept Molly’s adultery by adopting a depersonalized and literally cosmic perspective on human affairs. When the catechist in the ‘Ithaca’ chapter asks how Bloom justified his equanimity, the answer ends by pointing to Bloom’s detached reflections on ‘the lethargy of nescient matter: the apathy of the stars’ (604), associating him both with inert matter and with the indifference of outer space. Likewise, after Stephen has left, Bloom, now by himself, is described as feeling ‘the cold of interstellar space’ (578). Crucially, Bloom’s forgiveness of Molly is not occasioned or motivated by any change in Molly – an admission of wrong or an expression of remorse. Rather, in ‘Ithaca’, the personal is drowned out by a language of scientific impersonality that proliferates endlessly, as in the famous descriptions of the water flowing from ‘Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow’ (548), through the Dublin waterworks, to the tap in the Blooms’ kitchen, and of the myriad qualities of water admired by Bloom. Even Molly’s warm body is reduced to an abstract constellation of ‘adipose anterior and posterior female hemispheres’ (605), and it is this detachment, enacted in


A Literary History of Reconciliation

the language of the ‘Ithaca’ chapter, which makes the marital reconciliation in Ulysses possible. Bloom’s cosmic forgiveness can be usefully paired with the impersonal reconciliation at the end of To the Lighthouse, when Cam is enabled to forgive her father by the impersonal surroundings in which she finds herself. In both cases, moreover, the reconciliation goes uncommunicated by the parties involved; just as Cam does not communicate her forgiveness to Mr Ramsay, Molly remains uninformed about Leopold’s equanimity. Likewise, only the reader learns, in chapter 18 (‘Penelope’), of the possibility that Molly will reject Boylan and devote herself once again to Bloom. This absence of explicit communication between the reconciling characters also renders the reconciliation in both novels elusive and open-ended – made possible but never fully realized or completed. Indeed, it remains unclear whether Molly and Leopold’s acceptance of each other in the closing chapters of Ulysses marks a decisive new beginning for their marriage. Stephen Sicari sees Bloom, in his forgiving acceptance of Molly’s infidelity and his abnegation of vengeance, as a ‘shining example of Christian forgiveness and love’ and ‘an Incarnation of the Christian ideal’ – perhaps comparable to Sir Dedlock’s ‘full forgiveness’ of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.35 Sicari’s reading is a productive one in that the reconciliation between the Blooms in Ulysses, as well as that between Cam and Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, can usefully be construed as a reworking of a Christian concept of unconditional, gratuitous – and therefore divine – forgiveness. In both novels, the idea of gratuitous divine grace is recast as a form of a paradoxical, impersonalized forgiveness that is abstracted from the emotional intricacies of human relations, while also resting on a form of love that is accepting of human flaws, and, we might say, unconditional. Yet this also entails a radical secularization, and an emptying out, of Christian forgiveness discourses. Ulysses replaces the forgiving Christian God by an indifferent, material universe; To the Lighthouse, likewise, by the impersonality of the sea. Moreover, Bloom’s forgiveness – if that is indeed the appropriate term – of Molly significantly departs from one dominant strand in Christian notions of forgiveness: it does not require remorse on the wrongdoer’s part nor a wife’s supplication with and self-abasement before her husband, and it does not entail a confirmation of conventional, patriarchal gender hierarchies. In redefining Christian forgiveness paradigms, therefore, Joyce also dismantles the role which these paradigms have in legitimizing and sustaining patriarchy. For Sicari, Bloom’s acceptance of Molly’s adultery is also a deeply Christian act in that it entails ‘forgiving and loving those who hurt us’.36 In Dombey and Son, such unconditional, generous forgiveness, extended even to those who hurt us,

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


is cast as female, and presented as a commendable form of female submission to patriarchal power. In Ulysses, by contrast, it is offered by a husband who foregoes patriarchal domination, and who is detached from conventional masculine roles more broadly. This avoidance of patriarchal forgiveness also points to another significant parallel between Ulysses and To the Lighthouse: Woolf ’s novel does not culminate in a patriarch’s forgiveness of a remorseful daughter but in a daughter’s tacit and detached acceptance of a father whose patriarchal status is diminished. As we have seen, Ulysses, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, presents divine forgiveness, with remorse as its pivotal term, as a stifling psychological burden. Yet it also imagines an alternative, more secular model of interpersonal forgiveness, manifested in Bloom’s impassive acceptance of Molly’s infidelity. In this light, it is intriguing that the issue of remorse does return at the end of ‘Ithaca’, when the cathechist asks why Bloom ‘experience[d] a sentiment of remorse’ (595). The answer explains that he regrets his contempt, as a young man, for his father’s Jewish ‘beliefs and practices’ (595). Yet these feelings of remorse are generated not by an internalized Roman Catholic theology, as they are in Stephen’s case, but by Bloom’s relatively detached reflection on religion and religious identity. His father’s beliefs appear to him to be ‘not more rational than they had then appeared, not less rational than other beliefs and practices now appeared’ (595). It is in part because Bloom does not identify strongly with any religious belief system that he is able to view them with a kind of benign indifference and to acknowledge his father’s entitlement to a measure of respect for his religion. Furthermore, as with his forgiveness of Molly, the language of ‘Ithaca’ depersonalizes Bloom’s emotions: unlike Stephen, he is not overwhelmed and paralysed by remorse but experiences rather a more impersonal, generalized sentiment, preceded by an indefinite article. It remains to be seen whether Bloom’s passive, cosmically indifferent acceptance of Molly’s adultery has any purchase on the political issues which Ulysses also raises, and specifically on the question, which Stephen addresses, of political reconciliation in the context of a violent colonial history. The language of ‘Christian forgiveness and love’, celebrated by Sicari in the context of Bloom’s forgiveness of Molly, is also evoked in chapter 12 (‘Cyclops’), when Bloom famously offers a gospel of love as an antidote to the horrors of ‘force, hatred, history, all that’: ‘Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred’ (273). Bloom is bitterly mocked by the citizen, who reminds him that the idea of Christian love, rather than necessarily being a counterweight to hatred and history, has also served to legitimate and incite oppression and violence: ‘What about


A Literary History of Reconciliation

sanctimonious Cromwell and his ironsides that put the women and children of Drogheda to the sword with the bible text God is love pasted around the mouth of his cannon’ (273–274). Bloom’s message of universal love, tolerance and pacifism has often been contrasted favourably with the citizen’s supposed intolerance and bigotry, yet the latter’s criticisms of Bloom are at least in part cogent. As Emer Nolan remarks, ‘Bloom’s abstractly universal system of morality takes no account of the relations of power (in this case, between the English and the Irish)’.37 The citizen’s remarks resonate, therefore, with Stephen’s dismissal of the ‘spirit of reconciliation’ in Shakespeare. Likewise, the clinical language of the ‘Ithaca’ chapter, including Bloom’s meditations on the inertia of matter, is bleached not only of the personal but also of any reference to political agency and power relations. If Bloom’s extraordinary, accepting passivity in the face of Molly’s adultery can indeed be seen as in part ‘emblematic of Christ’, therefore, it also seems to fall short as a response to the wrongs of Irish colonial history – its validity confined to the intimate, domestic sphere.38 In this respect, Richard Ellmann’s view of Ulysses as ending in comic reconciliation can be seen as Dowdenesque in its omission of any reference to political conflict – in its failure, in other words, to address the critiques of colonial power presented by Stephen and the citizen. It is true that Bloom’s acceptance of religious difference and rejection of violence afford a partial escape from bigotry, as well as from the bitter, unrelieved antagonism in which Stephen’s iconoclasm, indictments of colonial power and rejection of reconciliation seem to remain trapped. A related form of acceptance, as Andrew Gibson has shown, is embodied in the ‘yes’ that reverberates through Molly Bloom’s monologue in chapter 18 (‘Penelope’), which famously culminates in her rapturous recollection of making love to Leopold on the hill of Howth and of his subsequent marriage proposal: then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. (644)

In a letter to Louis Gillet, Joyce wrote that the word ‘yes’ ‘denotes acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance’.39 Gibson argues that Molly’s ‘end [both in the sense of “goal” and “termination”] of all resistance’ has a political dimension, in that she accepts not only Leopold’s love but also grapples with the colonial realities of Gibraltar, where she grew up, and which serves as a mini-

Impersonal Reconciliation in To the Lighthouse and Ulysses


mirror image of Ireland.40 She does so in a spirit of irreverence that subverts both imperial British power and any anti-colonial nationalism that aims to erase all British traces – colonial, cultural and linguistic – from Ireland. Characteristic examples are Molly’s evocation of Gibraltar, at the end of ‘Penelope’, not in terms of British imperial militarism, but as a site of joyful sexual awakening (in the passage quoted above), and of cultural hybridity: ‘the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe’ (643). Ulysses, therefore, ‘repeatedly insists that, ultimately, the posture of antagonism or continued belligerence and indeed the historical obsession are chronically disempowering. They weaken, because they keep wounds open and even allow them to fester, rather than letting them heal’.41 In this sense, Ulysses offers Molly’s ‘yes’ and Leopold’s cosmic acceptance as an alternative to the political bitterness felt by Stephen and the citizen. At the same time, it is also through these latter two figures that Ulysses suggests that political reconciliation requires, in addition to a Bloomian relaxing of resistance, a more Dedalus-like grappling with the issues of agency and power that are obscured both by the language of Christian forgiveness and by Bloom’s reflections on the ‘apathy of the stars’.


‘Not Quite Not Yet’: History, Forgiveness and the Literary Imagination in Disgrace and Atonement

As we have seen in the previous chapter, To the Lighthouse and Ulysses link the issue of reconciliation to the violence of twentieth-century history – specifically the First World War (in To the Lighthouse) and Irish colonial history (in Ulysses). Both novels offset scenes of intimate reconciliation in the marital or familial sphere against these larger historical contexts. The relation between reconciliation and history is addressed even more prominently in the two novels examined in this chapter: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001). Disgrace famously examines the question of reconciliation and forgiveness in post-Apartheid South Africa. It does so by focusing on the figure of the academic David Lurie, who is dismissed from his job after an affair with a student of colour, Melanie Isaacs. He subsequently takes refuge on his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape. During an attack on the farm, Lucy is raped by three men, and Lurie himself set on fire. The effects of this event on both characters is explored especially from the perspective of Lurie, whose sense of selfhood – as a father, in his masculinity more broadly, as an intellectual and as a human being – is fundamentally dismantled. Throughout, Disgrace reflects on various, interrelated forms of personal and historical wrongs, and on the question of how such wrongs can be adequately addressed, both by the characters themselves and by the medium of fiction. Like Disgrace, Atonement is centrally concerned with issues of guilt, remorse, expiation, reconciliation and forgiveness. More strongly than Disgrace, McEwan’s novel foregrounds its own status as a work of fiction, and more explicitly poses the question of how its themes of guilt and forgiveness can be refracted through the medium of literature: What is the value of examining these themes by means of the literary imagination? Indeed, most of Atonement is in fact a novel-within-


A Literary History of Reconciliation

a-novel, written by Briony Tallis in an attempt to atone for her childhood crime of falsely accusing Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis family housekeeper, of having raped her cousin Lola. Both novels address intensely personal forms of guilt – Briony’s testimony against Robbie Turner; David Lurie’s problematic affair with Melanie Isaacs – which they simultaneously place in broader political and historical contexts. Indeed, both novels are preoccupied with the relation between individual agency and larger forces of history, as well as with the question of what kinds of redress can be offered by literature, and even art more broadly, in the face of the massive wrongs of the twentieth century. Disgrace suggests that these historical wrongs can only be addressed by means of a rethinking both of social, gender and racial positions and of the role of literature that is so fundamental that, by the end of the novel, it seems to have only just begun. If in remorse-based forgiveness, the wrongdoer has become a new person by means of contrition and repentance (even as he also remains the same), Disgrace imagines a more radical remaking of selves, in which all social positions are suspended and reinvented from the ground up. Indeed, Coetzee’s novel presents models of reconciliation based on confession, remorse and forgiveness as inadequate, compromised both epistemologically and politically. In Atonement, notions of confession and remorse are likewise found wanting, while the idea of personal guilt seems to disintegrate before the larger historical and political forces with which McEwan’s novel engages. Moreover, Atonement ultimately evinces deep scepticism about the idea – which it also insistently evokes – that literature can offer redress for grave wrongs, and serve as a medium of forgiveness.1 In both novels, reconciliation remains elusive, imagined in strongly optative terms: just as the horrors of the past can never be undone, reconciliation and forgiveness are devoutly wished for and persistently fantasized about, but are ultimately beyond the reach of individuals, and beyond the reach of literature.

Disgrace as a critique of reconciliation When, in the opening sentence of Disgrace, Coetzee’s narrator suggests that David Lurie has ‘solved the problem of sex rather well’ (1), he is also implying that Lurie, at least to his own mind, has satisfactorily solved the fraught political questions facing post-Apartheid South Africa. For Coetzee examines these questions primarily through the prism of sexuality and the politics of gender. David Lurie’s relations with both the prostitute Soraya and his student Melanie

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Isaacs have a strongly racial dimension, and the novel repeatedly suggests that Lurie, as a white male, has exploitative, even abusive sexual relations with women of colour (although Lurie never explicitly refers to their race). This becomes clear, for example, from Lurie’s play on the name Melany: ‘Meláni: the dark one’ (18; from the Greek μέλας [‘black, dark, enigmatic’]). This is in fact the moment when Lurie decides not to end his affair with Melanie, and her dark complexion clearly adds to the sexual allure she holds for him. Likewise, Soraya has a ‘honeybrown body’ (1) and ‘lustrous hair and dark eyes’ (6), while Lurie also describes her, in a characteristic wordplay, as sexually ‘compliant, pliant’ (5). In this sense, Lurie’s personal sex life is a microcosm of the racial relations which South Africa was attempting to transcend at the time when Disgrace was published. Furthermore, various scholars have pointed to the resonances between David Lurie’s trial and the hearings by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; this is an issue to which I will return in more detail below.2 Having said this, Coetzee’s understanding of history in Disgrace also incorporates far more than the (recent) history of South Africa. Indeed, Disgrace frequently evokes history in generalized, abstract terms, and with a strong sense of the longue durée. When Farodia Rassool, during the university committee hearing, insists that Lurie demonstrate an awareness of the ‘long history of exploitation’ (53), there is no immediate reason why she should be referring exclusively to South African history. Likewise, when Lurie, after his return to Cape Town in chapter 20, sees a ‘child with a stick’ herding a cow off the road, he meditates that ‘inexorably, […] the country is coming to the city. Soon there will be cattle again on Rondebosch Common; soon history will have come full circle’ (175). While Lurie refers to a specifically South African landscape (Rondebosch Common is a nature reserve in Cape Town), the passage also evokes a more general, almost Hardyesque sense of history, in which humans are transitory figures against a much larger temporal backdrop. Indeed, Disgrace subsumes recent South African history in part into a larger, long-term history of gender oppression. This larger history is intimated, for example, in the seemingly incongruous name of one of Lucy’s three rapists, Pollux, which obviously recalls the mythological twin brothers Castor and Pollux. As Paul Franssen explains, there are numerous mythological tales about Castor and Pollux, yet the story of the rape of Phoebe and Hilaeira, the daughters of Leucippus, forms an especially apt intertext for Disgrace.3 The story finds its most important classical source in Ovid’s Fasti, which recounts how the two brothers ‘ravished and carried away Phoebe and Phoebe’s sister’.4 Pollux’s name, then, suggest a correspondence between rape in classical antiquity and modern-


A Literary History of Reconciliation

day South Africa. Moreover, in Coetzee’s novel, it is not Castor but Lurie himself who is Pollux’s implied twin and mirror image. Indeed, at various points, Coetzee suggests a close analogy between Lucy’s rapists and Lurie himself, as well as between Lucy and Melanie. For example, when Lurie forces himself on Melanie, he understands that it is a form of violation: Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away. (25)

The parallel with Lucy’s rape – which remains unnoticed by Lurie himself – is striking, most notably when Lurie pictures for himself what happened to Lucy: ‘Her limbs went numb. This is not happening, she said to herself as the men forced her down’ (160). Likewise, in a letter to her father, Lucy describes herself as ‘a dead person’ (161), while Lurie has a memory of undressing Melanie in her flat, ‘her arms flop[ping] like the arms of a dead person’ (88). When, immediately after the assault, Lurie embraces Lucy in an attempt to comfort her, ‘she is stiff as a pole, yielding nothing’ (99). The sexual rapacity of both Coetzee’s Pollux and Lurie, then, represents in part a modern-day reiteration of a long, self-repeating history of sexual violence that stretches back as far as classical antiquity. This is also the ‘long history of exploitation’ to which Farodia Rassool refers, and which Lurie initially ignores. When Lurie writes to Lucy that in not pressing charges against her rapists, she ‘wish[es] to humble [her]self before history’ (160), he is referring specifically to contemporary South African history, yet Coetzee’s novel as a whole invites us to see this as a limited perspective (in part because it excludes Lurie himself).5 As David Attwell argues, Disgrace subsumes the seemingly dominant issues of race and racial oppression under broader categories of ‘power and appropriation’ and ‘reprisal and vengeance’.6 It is in part this ‘vice-grip of history’ – the idea that history as sexual oppression and exploitation endlessly repeats itself – which creates the profound sense of pessimism that many readers have found in Coetzee’s novel.7 As Elleke Boehmer notes, Disgrace casts doubt ‘on the possibility of achieving closure on a painful past’, envisaging instead a ‘far more painful process of enduring rather than transcending a degraded present, where the present more often than not is a rehearsal and prolongation of the past’.8 Throughout Disgrace, the focalizer is David Lurie, who speaks about himself in the third person. Only in certain passages of dialogue (between Lurie and his daughter Lucy, for example) are we offered glimpses of other viewpoints,

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although even in these cases, the motivations of characters other than Lurie himself frequently remain opaque to the reader. Lucy herself is a case in point. When Lurie is baffled by her apparent acceptance of her rape, she insists on her right not to be held to account by him: ‘It is my business, mine alone’ (112). Lurie himself has a well-developed knack for self-deception, furthermore, and his assessment of his own behaviour and motives can often not be taken at face value. This produces a narrative vertigo effect, in which there is no stable narrative authority: readers are required to adopt a critical stance towards Lurie’s narration, yet without the benefit of a sustained or unproblematically legible alternative perspective. This has important consequences for whatever the novel has to say about the political and ethical issues it examines. Lurie himself rejects the ‘first premise’ of the Communications 101 course which he is forced to teach under the new, ‘rationalized’ (3) university regime, which is that ‘human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other’ (4). Coetzee’s reader is likewise invited to regard this proposition with scepticism, and to be alert to the ways in which language can in fact conceal thoughts, feelings and intentions not only from others, but also from ourselves – especially when deeply painful political issues are at stake. The question of gauging both one’s own and other people’s feelings holds centre stage during the sexual harassment hearing in chapter 6. The members of the committee tasked with Lurie’s case have various and in part contradictory motives, while they are also to some extent divided along gender lines. As Lurie himself observes, he hears ‘no female voice’ (52) among the committee members who express sympathy with him and insist that the committee would like to help him. Before the hearing, in a more informal setting, Aram Hakim, the university’s Vice-Rector, in fact commiserates with Lurie: ‘Speaking personally, David, I want to tell you you have all my sympathy’ (42); Lurie himself dismisses this as ‘male chumminess’ (42). Desmond Swarts makes clear that the university’s reputation is at stake and that the committee’s decision will inevitably be under public scrutiny. The committee hearing is therefore also an attempt to control the inevitable damage to the university’s public reputation: Ideally we would all have preferred to resolve this case out of the glare of the media. But that has not been possible. It has received a lot of attention, it has acquired overtones that are beyond our control. All eyes are on the university to see how we handle it. (53–54)

There is a tension between this intensely public dimension of the hearing on the one hand, and the demand that David show genuine remorse for his actions


A Literary History of Reconciliation

on the other. Especially Farodia Rassool wants Lurie to ‘express contrition’ (54) in a public statement, and sees it as the committee’s duty to assess whether such a statement ‘comes from his heart’ (54). Lurie himself, by contrast, construes the trial in strictly procedural terms, insisting that only his formal guilt matters, not his own feelings: ‘I plead guilty to both charges. Pass sentence, and let us get on with our lives’ (48). The assessment of sincerity, he claims, ‘is beyond the scope of the law’ (55). The heartfelt repentance which the committee seeks to elicit from him, therefore, ‘belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse’ (58): the discourse of religion, rather than the secular discourse of the law. Indeed, Lurie believes that religious models of guilt and expiation more broadly are now defunct. In a much-quoted passage, he suggests that the committee hearing, with its demand for soul-searching on Lurie’s part, replaces religious ritual by an oppressive, secular panopticism, and this renders the language of contrition all the more hollow: Scapegoating worked in practice while it still had religious powers behind it. You loaded the sins of the city on to the goat’s back and drove it out, and the city was cleansed. It worked because everyone knew how to read the ritual, including the gods. Then the gods died, and all of a sudden you had to cleanse the city without divine help. Real actions were demanded instead of symbolism. The censor was born, in the Roman sense. Watchfulness became the watchword: the watchfulness of all over all. Purgation was replaced by the purge. (91)

In addition to critiquing the religious dimension of the committee hearing, Lurie also points to what he sees as its underlying power politics. In response to the committee’s demand for a public statement, he poses the following question: ‘You mean, will I humble myself and ask for clemency?’ (54). Whatever display of contrition he is able to muster, Lurie suggests, will be produced by the relations of power in which he finds himself. Remorse, in this context, effectively functions as a plea for clemency that is as submissive as it is self-interested. Invoking a scenario we have encountered throughout this book, he casts the committee in the role of sovereign, invested with the power to grant or withhold clemency as he sees fit, and to demand self-abasement from his subjects – that is to say, confirmation of his status as supreme ruler – as a prerequisite for clemency. Since it is primarily the theological dimension of the committee hearing to which Lurie objects, it is perhaps ironic that Manas Mathabane, the committee’s chair, is ‘Professor of Religious Studies’ (47). Yet it is precisely Mathabane who does not see it as the committee’s responsibility to elicit heartfelt remorse from Lurie. Mathabane prepares a public statement for Lurie, to which Lurie only has

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to subcribe in order to prevent dismissal from his job. Indeed, unlike Farodia Rassool, Mathabane sides with Lurie in the latter’s view that repentance is beyond the scope of the law. As he tells Lurie, ‘What goes on in your soul is dark to us, as members of what you call a secular tribunal if not as fellow human beings. […] The criterion is not whether you are sincere’ (58). Mathabane’s scepticism on this issue is in fact more thoroughgoing than that of Lurie himself, in that he questions the legibility of the soul more fundamentally, and not just in legal contexts. This undermines, at least to some extent, Lurie’s objections to the committee hearing. As far as Mathabane is concerned, these could in principle be raised in any situation – a fact of which Lurie, as a Professor of Communication, should arguably be aware. Mathabane is in fact asking Lurie to see the statement prepared for him in ritual and formal terms: as a public speech act that will be accepted by the university’s Rector ‘in a spirit of repentance’ (58, italics added). In the statement itself, Lurie would profess to ‘sincerely apologize’ both to the complainant and to the university. One important question which Coetzee’s novel asks us to consider at this point is whether the phrase ‘sincerely apologize’ can operate as a purely formal statement without losing its semantic and ethical weight. Conversely, it asks us to ponder the efficacy of the kind of formal procedure suggested by Mathabane: Is there a limit to the strain they can bear? Can one acknowledge something as serious as having abused, in the words of the statement itself, Melanie Isaac’s ‘human rights’ (57) in a spirit of formal compliance? Can a formal statement adequately address ‘the long history of exploitation’ (53) of which Farodia Rassool speaks? Moreover, what does it mean to be ‘sincere’ in the first place, especially for a character like Lurie, with his gift for self-deception? Ultimately, these questions produce an epistemological and ethical deadlock which the novel attempts to transcend in its second half, when Lurie seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy. Before we move on to this aspect of Disgrace, it is useful to explore the resonances between Lurie’s objections to the committee hearing and the views on confession which Coetzee himself offers in his well-known 1985 essay ‘Confession and Double Thoughts’. Lurie explicitly identifies his account of his affair with Melanie before the university committee as a ‘confession’ (52), and Coetzee’s essay helps to bring into focus the problematic nature of the committee hearing.9 Early in the essay, Coetzee insists on the theological origins of confession: Confession is one element in a sequence of transgression, penitence and absolution. Absolution means the end of the episode, the closing of the chapter, liberation from the oppression of the memory. Absolution in this sense is therefore the indispensable goal of all confession, sacramental or secular.10


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Coetzee’s essay asks whether confession can be transferred from this religious sphere to secular contexts (as also happens in Disgrace). More specifically, it examines how Tolstoy, Rousseau and Dostoevsky ‘confront or evade the problem of how to know the truth about the self without being self-deceived, and of how to bring the confession to an end in the spirit of whatever they take to be the secular equivalent of absolution’.11 In this sense, the theme of Coetzee’s essay is analogous to one of the core questions pursued in this book: What happens when religious conceptions of reconciliation migrate to the secular, interpersonal sphere? In the absence of a divine arbiter of truth, Coetzee suggests, confession, in Tolstoy, Rousseau and Dostoevsky, becomes endlessly regressive, never arriving at a core truth beyond which no further self-scrutiny is possible. There is always another transgression to be ferreted out, another aspect of the self to be unveiled. In addition, in secular contexts, confession can – and, for Coetzee, necessarily does – serve other purposes than the pursuit of truth. Secular confession always occurs before an audience (present, absent or implied), and the confessant may be trying, consciously or unawares, to elicit sympathy, love or absolution from the listener. This renders the ultimate aim of confession – absolution – fundamentally problematic. It is only before God or in the face of death that one speaks the truth about oneself, and that confession ceases to be performative. Ultimately, Coetzee argues, a successful confession that culminates in absolution remains an irreducibly religious concept and requires divine grace.12 There are compelling parallels, then, between Lurie’s misgivings about the committee hearing and Coetzee’s own critique of confession. Lurie’s objections to the committee hearing have also been read as a commentary on the hearings by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which the language of confession, remorse, forgiveness and redemption repeatedly cropped up. On this reading, Disgrace takes a sceptical view of the idea that this religious vocabulary of reconciliation can be effective in secular scenarios of conflict resolution. It should be emphasized, however, that there was in fact disagreement on the appropriateness of religious language within the TRC itself. Especially the issue of remorse formed an important faultline. As Richard Wilson has shown, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in various public statements, strongly presented post-Apartheid reconciliaton in these terms, yet his wellknown book No Future without Forgiveness (1999) also explains that, during the TRC hearings, a perpetrator’s remorse was not a requirement for amnesty, precisely because this would have led to insoluble questions about sincerity.13 Indeed, there was no legal mechanism for enforcing an admission of remorse

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from perpetrators, while Wynand Malan, the TRC vice-chairperson, openly rejected the insistence on remorse in a direct criticism of Tutu: Reconciliation shouldn’t be based on repentance and remorse … it is just a capacity to co-exist as individuals. It shouldn’t be based upon Christian ideas. […] The concept of guilt does not exist in traditional societies, only responsibility.14

Lurie’s objections to the committee hearing in Disgrace, therefore, are best understood as a reiteration of a debate within the TRC over the question of whether perpetrators should show contrition, with the religious connotations which this term inevitably evokes. In Coetzee’s novel, moreover, Lurie’s assessment does not offer the final word, and it would be wrong to dismiss the committee’s insistence on repentance altogether. While Lurie’s objections to the committee hearing are philosophically cogent, they are also self-serving in that they provide him with an intellectual excuse for rejecting any form of reflection on his actions, on the nature of his responsibility, and on the larger history with which his conduct is enmeshed. As Julie McGonegal writes, ‘to engage in overwhelming doubt and cynicism regarding the possibility of reconciliation in South Africa may well be to deny the responsibility of the dominant subject in relations of power’.15 In this sense, Disgrace can be seen as an effort by Coetzee to reconsider or move beyond the scepticism towards confession voiced in his 1985 essay, as well as in an earlier novel like Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).16 Indeed, Disgrace examines the question of whether, if showing contrition in front of a committee is indeed fraught with philosophical and political pitfalls, there are alternative ways of recognizing moral responsibility for misdeeds, and of endeavouring to transcend the horrors of history. In this context, it is ironic that Lurie initially sees himself as incapable of personal change, and therefore, we might add, as incapable of the remorse which the university committee wants him to show: ‘His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set’ (2). During the committee hearing, he asserts that he is ‘beyond the reach of counselling’ (49). As is often the case, Lurie’s self-assessment here is double-edged: it reads in part as self-condemnation, but simultaneously serves as a convenient form of selfjustification. His actions, he believes, are the result of a fixed, unalterable nature, and the implication is that he cannot be held fully responsible for them. In this sense, he finds a counterpart in the Lucifer figure in Byron’s narrative poem ‘Lara’, which he teaches as part of his course on Romantic poetry. He explains to his students that Byron’s Lucifer ‘doesn’t act on principle but on impulse, and the


A Literary History of Reconciliation

source of his impulses is dark to him’ (33). Yet even this self-analysis is unstable, since Lurie admits during the committee hearing that his impulse in seducing Melanie was ‘far from ungovernable’ (52), although he expresses no regret for not governing it. In spite of his protestations, moreover, Lurie does in fact undergo a radical – if also open-ended – transformation in the novel’s second half. As we will see, this transformation revolves around an ability, however inchoate or tentative, to engage empathetically with the suffering of others, represented especially by what Elleke Boehmer calls the ‘radical alterity’ of animals.17 This ability, moreover, only partially results from deliberate effort, while it also requires a moving beyond language. Indeed, the reconciliation paradigms represented by the university committee are inadequate in part because they lack a corporeal dimension, and are purely discursive. In its effort to transcend these paradigms, Coetzee’s novel seeks to go beyond discourse, into a realm of corporeal experience – and especially the experience of corporeal vulnerability. Initially, Lurie is physically confident, secure in his attractiveness: ‘With his height, his good bones, his olive skin, his flowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism’ (7). After the attack in chapter 11, he loses his good looks – his scalp burnt, his eyebrows and eyelashes gone, and one eyelid ‘swelling shut’ (97) – and feels vulnerable, dependent on the help of others: ‘but for Bill and Bev Shaw, but for old Ettinger, but for bonds of some kind, where would he be now?’ (102). His injuries in fact reduce him to a childlike state, as when Lucy tells him that ‘There’s baby-oil in the bathroom cabinet. Put some on’ (98). Indeed, the experience of physical violence and his inability to keep his daughter from harm, fundamentally damage his self-understanding, ‘as if he has been eaten away from inside and only the eroded shell of his heart remains’ (156). Lurie is initially oblivious or indifferent to the idea of vulnerability, as when he fails to respond to clear signs that something is the matter with Melanie, and that she may be seeking shelter with him. When she shows up at Lurie’s house to ask if she can stay with him for a while, and ‘begins to sob miserably’ (26), Lurie does make some effort to ‘comfort her’ (26) but sees this unexpected turn of events primarily as an opportunity for further sexual gratification: ‘Every night she will be here; every night he can slip into her bed like this, slip into her’ (27). Lurie’s failure to respond empathetically to Melanie’s misery points to the more general silence, and perhaps inscrutability, built into the Melanie character. She is an important absence during Lurie’s committee hearing, her own appearance before the committee only alluded to. It also remains unclear whether it is in fact she, and not her boyfriend Ryan or her father,

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who files the complaint against Lurie. Indeed, it is her boyfriend and father, rather than Melanie herself, who confront Lurie about his conduct. Melanie’s silence points to a more structural female voicelessness that is one of Disgrace’s core themes. Lurie’s daughter Lucy explicitly insists on such silence, as when she refuses to explain to Lurie her decision not to press charges against her rapists, in an effort to keep her father from assessing her predicament for her. Yet the silence of other female characters results from an assumption by male characters that they have a prerogative to speak on behalf of their daughters, spouses or partners – as well as, in some cases, from a female acceptance of that prerogative. Ryan treats Lurie with instinctive aggression, chasing him from the theatre where Melanie is performing in Sunset at the Globe Salon, and telling Lurie that ‘Melanie will spit in your eye if she sees you’ (194). Likewise, when Lurie visits Melanie’s parental home, her mother – described by Lurie as ‘the wife’ (168) – and younger sister Desiree remain almost completely silent, uttering only formalities or, in Desiree’s case, a murmured ‘Hello’ (169), while Lurie converses with Melanie’s father. It is also Melanie’s father to whom Lurie eventually apologizes (doing so only indirectly to Melanie herself): ‘I am sorry for what I took your daughter through’ (171). This is in fact as close as Lurie gets to uttering the public statement which the university committee demands. Responding to Lurie’s apology, Mr Isaacs presses him on the religious dimension of remorse: But I say to myself, we are all sorry when we are found out. Then we are very sorry. The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned? The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry? […] May I pronounce the word God in your hearing? […] The question is, what does God want from you, besides being very sorry? Have you any ideas, Mr Lurie? (172)

This passage revisits the question of sincere contrition also at the heart of the committee hearing. In response to Mr Isaac’s admonishment, Lurie offers a second apology, this time to Desiree and Mrs Isaacs. Rather than offering an apologetic statement, Lurie humbles himself before Desiree and Mrs Isaacs in a ritual gesture of supplication: ‘With careful ceremony he gets to his knees and touches his forehead to the floor’ (173). His self-abasement elicits no response from Desiree and Mrs Isaacs. This moment suggests that Lurie continues to think of reconciliation in hierarchical terms, as does his request for Mr Isaac’s ‘pardon’ (171). Lurie’s attempt at reconciliation is also undermined by the fact that even now, his sexual urges assert themselves, as he fantasizes luridly about sharing a


A Literary History of Reconciliation

bed with both Desiree and Melanie: ‘an experience fit for a king’ (164; the phrase sits uneasily with Lurie self-abasement before Desiree and Mrs Isaacs).

Rethinking reconciliation in Disgrace The ritual forms of interpersonal reconciliation available in Disgrace, then, remain problematic – haunted by questions of (gender) hierarchy and power relations, by the question of Lurie’s capacity for moral change, by the unknowability of remorse, and by the fraught nature of (ritual) language. In its attempts to transcend these reconciliation paradigms, Coetzee’s novel not only seeks to abandon language but also turns its gaze to the relations between humans and animals, rather than the interpersonal relations that dominate the novel’s first half. We find the clearest instance of this in Lurie’s dedication to the stray dogs at Bev Shaw’s animal clinic, where he assists Bev in euthanizing dogs that cannot be cared for, and disposing of their corpses in as dignified a manner as the circumstances will allow. As various commentators have noted, Lurie himself is baffled by his own affective response to the dogs and their fate.18 It is not actively willed by himself, nor does it result from soul-searching on his part. Indeed, Lurie’s loss of agency is pivotal to the ethical transformation which he at least begins to experience in the novel’s closing chapters. Driving home one day from the animal clinic, he is overwhelmed by emotion and has to stop by the side of the road: ‘Tears flow down his face that he cannot stop; his hands shake. He does not understand what is happening to him’ (143). In a particularly evocative passage in the novel’s penultimate page, Lurie thinks of the dogs as ensouled, associating their deaths with ‘the smell of expiration, the soft short smell of the released soul’ (219). Likewise, he now sees it as his duty to offer the unwanted dogs, marked for death, ‘what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love’ (219). In his work for the animal clinic, Lurie develops, in Derek Attridge’s words, ‘a dedication to a singularity that exceeds systems and computations: the singularity of every living, and dead, being’.19 It is in his encounter with the radical otherness of animals that Lurie comes to acknowledge the sentience and dignity of other beings in a way that he singularly failed to do in his affair with Melanie Isaacs. When he decides to load the dogs’ corpses into the incinerator himself, instead of leaving this to the crew working at the incinerator, he does so in an attempt to preserve their ‘honour’, and out of a sense of dedication to ‘a world in which men

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do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing’ (146). A world, that is to say, in which a measure of dignity is granted even to a dead dog. If Lurie saw his first attempt to seduce Melanie as a ‘ritual that men and women play out with each other’ (12), he now submits to a ritual which does not serve to further his own needs, and does not serve any practical purpose. Indeed, Lurie comes to see himself in the stray dogs. Lucy, having agreed to become a tenant on Petrus’s land, and accepting his protection, summarizes her situation as follows: ‘Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity’ (205). This, Lucy and Lurie agree, is equivalent to becoming ‘like a dog’ (205); these are in fact the last words Lucy speaks in the novel. This moment finds an echo at the end of Disgrace, when Lurie agrees to have his favourite dog – like himself musically sensitive – euthanized: ‘Yes, I am giving him up’ (220). As Peter Liebregts suggests, ‘him’ in this sentence refers not only to the dog but also to Lurie himself (in line, perhaps, with Lurie’s referring to himself in the third person throughout Disgrace).20 This sense of equivalence between himself and an unwanted orphan dog points to the condition of namelessness and insignificance which Lurie now seems capable of seeing as his own. Liebregts adds that it remains unclear which aspect, or which version, of himself Lurie relinguishes: is he giving up his former, Byronic self, for example, or is he suggesting that there may be no place for him in the new South Africa at all? In spite of this ambivalence, it is strongly suggested that the South Africa of which Lurie is now a part requires him to relinquish whatever status he has so far laid claim to, and to reinvent himself from the ground up – and that Lurie at least partially understands this. Early in the novel, we learn that Lurie continues to teach in part ‘because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world’ (5). For his students in Communications 101, he is in fact a non-entity: ‘They look through him when he speaks, forget his name’ (4). Yet initially, this condition of namelessness and invisibility is one into which Lurie lapses only when he is teaching the courses in communication skills which he so despises – as opposed to the course on the Romantic poets which he is still allowed to offer. His pious claim about being taught humility, therefore, has no fundamental consequences for his self-understanding. It is only much later in the novel that he comes to understand more thoroughly what it means to be nameless and invisible to others. Only such a fundamental realignment of positions, Disgrace suggests, can make possible not only a post-Apartheid future, but also an escape from the vice-grip of history more broadly. This also means that paradigms of reconciliation such as


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those espoused by the university committee – which revolve around confession and contrition – offer an inadequate means of addressing the questions of guilt, responsibility and expiation which post-Apartheid South Africa has to confront, and with which history more generally confronts us. The rethinking of reconciliation outlined in the preceding paragraphs also has repercussions for what Coetzee’s novel has to say about the ethical role of literature. Disgrace is an intensely self-conscious novel in that it frequently examines the political and ethical value of Western art and literature, as well as the role of the artistic imagination in addressing the horrors of South Africa’s past, and in envisaging a South African future. For example, Lurie’s play on Melanie’s name, quoted earlier in this chapter, is linked to his poetic sensitivity: ‘Melanie – melody: a meretricious rhyme. Shift the accent. Meláni: the dark one’ (18). It therefore functions as one among a number of moments in which Lurie’s erudition and knowledge of Western literature and art, far from ennobling him, serve as an instrument of exploitation and power. That he should think of Melanie’s name in poetic terms – rhyme and meter – in fact underscores the extent to which he objectifies her: in Lurie’s mind, aesthetic pleasure and sexual exploitation shade into each other, and his deep knowledge of literature allows him to aestheticize sexual exploitation. Indeed, it is in part the tropes of the Western love lyric that enable Lurie to objectify Melanie, and deny her ownership of her own body, while simultaneously allowing Lurie to evade responsibility for his own actions.21 Playing on the opening lines of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 1’, which he had quoted during his first attempt to seduce Melanie, Lurie ruminates as follows: ‘Beauty’s rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either’ (18). It is also when Lurie quotes this sonnet to Melanie, in chapter 2, that the analogy between himself and Lucifer is first established. Lurie reflects on ‘the pentameter, whose cadence once served so well to oil the serpent’s words’ (16). He is referring here to his own sexual past, but there is also an unmistakable echo of Milton’s Satan, whose temptation of Eve is presented in similarly poetic terms: ‘So gloz’d the Tempter, and his Proem tun’d; / Into the Heart of Eve his words made way’ (Paradise Lost, 9.549–550). Literature, in Disgrace, does not afford an Arnoldian experience of ‘sweetness and light’, nor is it merely innocuous. Rather, it provides narratives, tropes and imagery which help to sustain and legitimize the sexual oppression which serves as Coetzee’s metonymy for the injustices of history. As an alternative to the literary canon whose ethical force has been compromised, not least by Lurie himself, Disgrace offers a radically paireddown form of art, embodied by the opera Byron in Italy on which Lurie

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embarks in the final chapters of the novel. Lurie begins writing his opera when he returns to Cape Town, where his apartment has been burgled, his electricity and telephone cut off, while he himself is shunned by his former colleagues. It is in these symbolically appropriate circumstances – isolated and with his former life definitively fallen apart – that Lurie finds a suitable form for the opera (or rather, that its form suggests itself to him), and that he is able to sketch out its first hesitant words and fragments of melody. The musical idiom which Lurie’s opera demands represents a kind of anti-aesthetic, a deliberate relinquishing of conventional notions of musical beauty or euphony. Lurie decides that the sound of his piano is ‘too rounded’ and ‘rich’ (184), and finds a more appropriate musical aesthetic in ‘the silly plink-plonk’ of a ‘toy banjo’ (184) which he recovers from his attic. The stripped-down, almost defiantly unmusical sound of the banjo – described by Coetzee as a ‘squawk’ (214) and a ‘flat, tinny slap’ (184) – comes to dominate the opera’s soundscape, while the vocal melodies which Lurie composes are similarly rudimentary, with a C repeated nine times, followed by a basic, chromatic descent to its close harmonic cousin F: Out of the poets I learned to love, chants Byron in his cracked monotone, nine syllables on C natural; but life, I found (descending chromatically to F), is another story. Plink-plunk-plonk go the strings of the banjo. Why O why do you speak like that? sings Teresa in a long reproachful arc. Plunk-plink-plonk go the strings. (185)

Just as Lurie himself, as we have seen, has to start at ground level, the music he composes has to start at a formal ground zero, and reinvent itself from scratch. Indeed, it is fleetingly suggested that the pared-down, bleak sounds of Lurie’s opera offer a musical language appropriate to the South Africa in which Lurie lives: ‘Plink-plunk goes the mandolin in [Teresa’s] arms […]. Plink-plunk squawks the banjo in the desolate yard in Africa’ (214). As with his response to animals, Lurie is able to write the opera in part by relinquishing control. He marvels at ‘what the little banjo is teaching him’ (184), and the music seems to come to him by its own volition: Sometimes the contour of a phrase occurs to him before he has a hint of what the words themselves will be; sometimes the words call forth the cadence; sometimes the shade of a melody, having hovered for days on the edge of hearing, unfolds and blessedly reveals itself. (183)22

As Derek Attridge observes, the word ‘blessedly’ in this passage is suggestive of the religious significance which the composition process holds for Lurie; the


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same holds true for the phrase ‘reveals itself ’.23 This religious dimension can be usefully contrasted with the religious lexicon of remorse employed by the university committee. Rather than being asked to produce a formal statement of contrition, Lurie experiences the music that reveals itself to him as a form of grace, bestowed on him as a gift. As we have seen, Lurie asks for ‘pardon’ from Melanie’s father, a term with strongly political connotations, and suggestive of hierarchical power relationships. In Disgrace, Coetzee also employs the more strongly religious term ‘to forgive’. While it occurs only four times in Disgrace, the contexts in which it appears are revealing. Lurie speaks of ‘forgiveness’ once in relation to Lucy, once in relation to the semi-fictional figure of the long-dead Teresa Guiccioli, Byron’s lover, and twice in relation to dead animals for which he has come to feel a form of affection by which he himself is puzzled. At the end of chapter 9, in a moment that reads like an inversion of the reconciliation between Florence Dombey and her father, Lurie asks Lucy to forgive his shortcomings as a parent: ‘Forgive me, Lucy […] For being one of the two mortals assigned to usher you into the world and for not turning out to be a better guide’ (79). When Lurie realizes that his eccentric little opera is unlikely ever to be performed, he feels responsible for the fictional Teresa: ‘Poor Teresa! Poor aching girl! He has brought her back from the grave, promised her another life, and now he is failing her. He hopes she will find it in her heart to forgive him’ (214). Teresa here serves partly as a figure both of Melanie and Lucy, who are killed metaphorically by male sexual exploitation or violence. After her rape, Lucy writes to Lurie that she is unsure ‘what will bring [her] back to life’ (161). In bringing Teresa to life, it is suggested, Lurie is also attempting to bring Melanie and Lucy back from metaphorical death. That is to say, it is through the figure of Teresa that Lurie comes to acknowledge the reality of female suffering, as well as his own need for forgiveness. Similarly, when Lurie returns to Cape Town for a short while, he wonders if he will ‘ever be forgiven’ by the dead dogs whose corpses will now be incinerated unceremoniously, ‘tossed into the fire unmarked, unmourned’ (178). At Petrus’s party, he eats the mutton chops which he is served, resolving to ‘ask forgiveness afterwards’ (131). Presumably, he will direct this plea for forgiveness to the sheep themselves, for which he had come to feel an unexpected sympathy and which he is now betraying. In three of these four instances, Lurie asks for forgiveness from, and acknowledges ethical responsibility towards, figures who can be seen as fundamentally other, existing on the far side of the human, of the fictional, and of death. The degree to which Teresa and the dead dogs and sheep are conflated in Lurie’s mind is underscored when, immediately after he asks for Teresa’s

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hypothetical forgiveness, the narrative turns to ‘the dogs in the holding pens’ (214), one of which Lurie ‘has come to feel a particular fondness for’ (214–215). In these instances, moreover, forgiveness is held out only as a possibility  – deferred, perhaps most explicitly in Teresa’s case, to an indeterminate future beyond the novel’s own narrative reach. If Disgrace suggests that art – at least in the purged, whittled-down form of Lurie’s opera – has the power to kindle Lurie’s ethical sensitivities, any sense of definitive absolution for Lurie remains hypothetical and at best emergent. As we will see, this sense of forgiveness as elusive is also a key issue in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Forgiveness, history and individual agency in Atonement The title of McEwan’s novel invites us to see it as simultaneously about, and as itself a form of, atonement. Indeed, Atonement is preoccupied throughout with the question of whether the literary imagination, and the fictions which it crafts, can offer a form of redress for real-life wrongs. In this sense, McEwan’s novel can be read as a sustained reflection on the ethical efficacy of storytelling. It focuses on a central misdeed by the thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, who falsely accuses Robbie Turner of having raped her cousin Lola. The consequences of her action are disastrous. Briony’s testimony is credited by her family and by police officers, and Robbie is sent to prison. Released early in exchange for serving in the British Expeditionary Force, he dies of septicaemia at Bay Dunes, awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk. On the day of the rape, Briony’s sister Cecilia had made love to Robbie, and their budding love is cut short by the accusations against Robbie. Enraged by her family’s behaviour, Cecilia leaves the Tallis home to become a nurse in London. She vows to wait for Robbie’s return and writes frequently to him, but is killed during the flooding of Balham Tube station on 14 October 1940.24 Later in life, Briony becomes a successful novelist, and, as readers find out at the end of Part Three, most of Atonement is written by her. As she explains in the novel’s coda, it is her attempt to atone for, and even undo, the wrong she has committed, and to find a form of absolution. Yet Briony’s personal quest for forgiveness is placed in a much wider historical context, and she is not the only character seeking absolution. As we will see, the forgiveness which she and other characters so ardently seek remains elusive. Atonement invariably imagines forgiveness – pursued through literary writing or otherwise – as conditional, hypothetical, withheld, deferred or incomplete – or even marked as fictive, its existence confined to the imagination.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Various moments in Briony’s narrative link forgiveness both to the act of writing and to the imagination more broadly. Mulling over a tense encounter with Cecilia at the pool, Robbie imagines a kind of forgiveness from her: ‘He rolled onto his side, eyes fixed and unseeing, and indulged a cinema fantasy: she pounded against his lapels before yielding with a little sob to the safe enclosure of his arms and letting herself be kissed; she didn’t forgive him, she simply gave up’ (80). This reconciliation scene is explicitly marked as imaginary, modelled on the conventions of certain film genres. Here, the imagination offers primarily a momentary escape from the emotional complexities of reality: Robbie imagines Cecilia’s anger as simply evaporating before his forceful display of masculinity, any need for a more complex form of forgiveness in this way circumvented. The link between forgiveness and the imagination is also addressed in a crucial scene towards the end of Part Two, when Robbie has a fever dream in which he replays, in reverse order, the events narrated in this section of the novel. In this dream, Robbie imagines undoing the atrocities which he has witnessed, and in which he feels strangely complicit, unwilling to leave France before attending to all of this ‘unfinished business’ (262). The passage culminates in Robbie’s revisiting in his mind two key scenes in Part Two: the moment when he sees a severed child’s leg in a tree, and a Stuka attack in which a Flemish woman and her young son are killed. The passage reads like a rewinding of Part Two of Atonement: He would go back the way he had come, walk back through the reverses of all they had achieved, across the drained and dreary marshes, past the fierce sergeant on the bridge, through the bombed-up village, and along the ribbon road that lay across the miles of undulating farmland, watching for the track on the left on the edge of the village, opposite the shoe shop, and two miles on, go over the barbed-wire fence and through the woods and fields to an overnight stop at the brothers’ farm, and next day, in yellow morning light, on the swing of a compass needle, hurry through that glorious country of little valleys and streams and swarming bees, and take the rising footpath to the sad cottage by the railway. And the tree. Gather up from the mud the pieces of burned, striped cloth, the shreds of his pyjamas, then bring him down, the poor pale boy, and make a decent burial. […] But first he must cover the miles again, and go back north to the field where the farmer and his dog still walked behind the plough, and ask the Flemish lady and her son if they held him accountable for their deaths. (262–263)

The passage registers Robbie’s powerlessness to undo the past, and his inability to exert any influence on the history into which he has been thrown. Only in

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his state of delirium is Robbie able to achieve such control. It is symbolic, in this respect, that he has been enlisted in a failed mission to prevent the Nazi invasion of France. Robbie’s sense of not having lived up to his personal responsibilities as a soldier is mirrored in, and even overshadowed by, a more collective powerlessness in the face of history, a more general failure to prevent massive suffering and a breakdown of civilization. Indeed, while Atonement – or at least Briony herself in her capacity as narrator – asks us to see Briony’s crime as pivotal, and the novel as a whole as her personal atonement, it also offsets that crime against wider contexts of class prejudice and global warfare, in which individual agency seems to dissolve. It is these wider contexts that allow Briony’s tragic mistake to have such destructive consequences, and her thirteen-year-old self can be held only partially responsible for Robbie and Cecilia’s fate. Emily Tallis, the mother of Briony, Cecilia and Leon, most enthusiastically pursues the case against Robbie, instantly convinced of Robbie’s guilt when she reads the sexually explicit note which Robbie accidentally sends to Cecilia. Emily is one of the characters into whose mind Briony as narrator enters, and on the night of Robbie’s arrest she remembers her resistance to her husband Jack’s paying for Robbie’s university education, sarcastically described by her as ‘Robbie’s elevation’ (152): ‘it smacked of meddling to her, and [seemed] unfair on Leon and the girls’ (151). As readers, we are never offered Jack Tallis’s perspective on the matter, but Emily implies that her husband sees his financial support of Robbie rather as a form of compensation – atonement, if you will – for the class privilege which ‘Leon and the girls’ enjoy, and to which Emily is oblivious: ‘When [Jack] spoke about Robbie, which wasn’t often, it was with a touch of self-righteous vindication. Something had been established which Emily took to be a criticism of herself ’ (151). It is strongly implied that Emily resents Robbie’s class mobility, seeing it as an infringement on the opportunities to which her own children are uniquely entitled.25 As Cecilia writes to Robbie, ‘my mother never forgave you your first’ (209). The issue of class is addressed once again, if more implicitly, in the novel’s coda, when the now 77-year-old Briony speculates that the immensely wealthy Paul Marshall has ‘spent a lifetime making amends’ (357) through his involvement in charity. While she does not specify what Marshall has tried to make amends for, Briony is clearly referring to his sexual crime: she has come to see him, rather than Robbie, as Lola’s true rapist. Yet Marshall is also, and more unambiguously, guilty of a different, if not unrelated, crime. He makes his fortune by producing ‘Amo’ bars to the British army, cynically exploiting


A Literary History of Reconciliation

massive human suffering for massive economic gain. As he informs Emily Tallis, these fake chocolate bars are made of the cheapest ingredients: ‘to produce a ton of the stuff […] cost next to nothing’ (152). There is an obvious contrast with the personal sacrifices made by working-class soldiers like Robbie, who end up consuming Marshall’s candy. Emily is also oblivious to this dimension of class relations, seeing Marshall as a highly suitable marriage candidate for Cecilia, and envisaging ‘what untroubled years might flow from these cheap vats’ (152). Marshall speaks jarringly about his project in terms of a ‘vision’ to which he is ‘enslaved’ (49), obscuring the cheapness of the product he is selling and the exploitation of the war which it enables, and even presenting himself, rather than the labourers in his factory, as ‘enslaved’. Marshall’s exploits as a businessman are in fact all but explicitly linked to his sexual abuse of Lola when he presents her with an Amo bar (the name itself is an incongruous pun on the Latin for ‘I love’) and intently watches her eat it: ‘“Bite it,” he said softly. “You’ve got to bite it”’ (62). As Brian Finney notes, Marshall is as ‘willing to rape “poor vain and vulnerable Lola” (324) as he is to take advantage of the country fighting for its survival’.26 Natasha Alden rightly points to the contrast between Marshall’s war profiteering and Jack Tallis’s ‘attempt to limit the damage war might bring’.27 We might add that while Marshall seeks profit for himself, Jack Tallis, as a high-ranking civil servant, serves a national community, disappearing into his work to such an extent that he is also largely absent from Atonement. In the context of the systemic injustice represented by Emily’s attitudes towards class and Marshall’s exploitation of the war, the thirteen-year-old Briony’s ability to cause damage to others seems limited. That Robbie is the victim of class hierarchies, moreover, lends further tragic poignancy to his deep sense of personal responsibility for the suffering he witnesses in France. Atonement repeatedly addresses issues of guilt and responsibility explicitly. When he has arrived at Dunkirk, Robbie reflects on the meaning of individual guilt, including Briony’s, at a historical moment when untold suffering is inflicted on millions of people, and in circumstances in which Robbie is forced to focus on his own survival, rather than on saving – or even burying – the war victims he encounters during his retreat: Briony would change her evidence, she would rewrite the past so that the guilty became the innocent. But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence, for there weren’t enough people, enough paper and pens, enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and gather in the facts.

History, Forgiveness and the Literary Imagination in Disgrace and Atonement 171 The witnesses were guilty too. All day we’ve witnessed each other’s crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave to die? (261)

Atonement also evokes this sense of individual powerlessness when Robbie arrives on the beach at Dunkirk and is struck by the sheer size of the crowd of soldiers, passively awaiting an evacuation that seems unlikely to take place: He saw thousands of men, ten, twenty thousand, perhaps more, spread across the vastness of the beach. In the distance they were like grains of black sand. But there were no boats, apart from one upturned whaler rolling in the distant surf. […] They waited, but there was nothing in sight, unless you counted in those smudges on the horizon – boats burning after an air attack. (247–248)

The issue of guilt and responsibility is also confronted, finally, when a group of soldiers waiting to be evacuated from Dunkirk turn on a hapless RAF man, whom they blame for the RAF’s absence during the retreat from France. Robbie and the corporals Mace and Nettle bring him to safety. This scene explicitly represents the impulse to assign individual blame in the chaotic circumstances of a global military conflict as misguided and even malevolent. It also echoes the way in which the Tallis family, with the exception of Cecilia, close ranks, especially in class terms, when Robbie is accused of raping Lola.

Atonement, forgiveness and the literary imagination As was noted above, the end of Part Three reveals that we have been reading a novel written by Briony Tallis herself. One key implication of this is that she has implicitly been the focalizer throughout Atonement, the account of the events which we have been offered filtered by her preoccupations, even when she enters into the minds of others, most notably Robbie Turner. It also means that her narrative is at least to a degree self-serving, written with the aim of lifting her own sense of guilt. The doubts which this raises about the veracity of various elements of the narrative remains deliberately unresolved. The account by the adult Briony cannot be seen as unproblematically reliable, or as providing a full correction of the young Briony’s falsehoods or misperceptions. Indeed, as Martin Jacobi argues, there is a sense in which the adult writer Briony depicts her thirteen-year-old self as ‘more guilty and thus more responsible than she actually is for the horrors that do occur’.28 As Huw Marsh has shown, furthermore, Robbie’s exoneration is at least potentially coloured by Briony’s


A Literary History of Reconciliation

later interpretation of events, and the identity of Lola’s attacker remains a matter of doubt until the very end.29 Similarly, Robbie and Cecilia’s deaths during the war are not unambiguously presented as the truth obscured by the more hopeful ending which Briony has devised, but rather as an alternative, equally fictional and equally hypothetical scenario.30 She confesses that she ‘can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader’ (370) that Robbie and Cecilia did not survive the war: How could that constitute an ending? What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn’t do it to them. I’m too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. (371)

Rather than forming a factual account, ‘the bleakest realism’ to which Briony refers is just as much governed by a set of literary conventions as the relatively comic ending which she has invented for Robbie and Cecilia. She presents the validity of such realism not in terms of truthfulness, but in terms of readerly satisfaction, and therefore in terms of a literary experience. Given the explicitly literary character of Briony’s account, moreover, it is worth noting that she presents Robbie as the most forgiving character. Robbie sees it as his duty, for example, to encourage Cecilia to seek a form of reconciliation with her parents. While Cecilia writes to Robbie that she ‘can never forgive what they did’ (209), Robbie feels that ‘he should try again to persuade her to make contact with her parents. She needn’t forgive them, or go back over the old arguments. She should just write a short and simple letter, letting them know where and how she was’ (211). Robbie’s motives in wanting Cecilia to re-establish contact with her parents are unclear to him. The narrator suggests that ‘it may have been the first touches of green along the French lanes, and the haze of bluebells glimpsed through the woods that made him feel the need for reconciliation and fresh beginnings’ (211). As with the reconciliation scenarios in Ulysses and To the Lighthouse, therefore, Robbie’s forgiving stance is not occasioned by a change in the wrongdoers, in this case Cecilia’s parents. Rather, it is the arrival of spring, and a sense of natural cycles, that makes him long for reconciliation. This analogy between spring and the possibility of ‘fresh beginnings’, or rebirth, in human relations is, of course, a conventional literary and mythological topos. Indeed, the passage may echo Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Trees’ (1967), which likewise presents the awakening of nature during spring – ‘The trees are coming into leaf ’ – as a possible renewal, and as heralding an undefined sense of hope for

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humans: ‘Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’31 In Larkin’s poem, this reading of spring is questioned by the word ‘seem’ in the penultimate line, as well as by the ominous, insistently repeated, and therefore self-undermining, imperative ‘afresh’. Atonement likewise undermines the pastoral idyll evoked by the narrator. The immediate context of the passage emphasizes Robbie’s boredom during the winter in northern France, when ‘nothing much happened’ (210) apart from a variety of seemingly pointless military training exercises. It is in part this boredom that makes him prone to read new beginnings into the advent of spring. Moreover, the idea that spring brings fresh beginnings, or the possibility of interpersonal reconciliation, is already undercut more savagely at the beginning of Part Two, when Robbie sees a severed child’s leg in a ‘mature plane tree, only just in leaf ’ (192). This moment renders hollow any sense of a link between seasonal cycles and human relations. The coming of spring also instils in Robbie an awareness of time and mortality, and he ultimately sees this as the most compelling reason for seeking reconciliation: ‘He knew that if [Cecilia] did not make her peace with her parents before one of them died, her remorse would be endless. He would never forgive himself if he did not encourage her’ (211). As we have seen, Robbie is careful to distinguish the relatively harmonious coexistence with her parents which he would like Cecilia to seek from full-fledged forgiveness. Yet in emphasizing the endless remorse which he imagines Cecilia will feel if she does not make peace with her parents, he in fact reintroduces the conventional, theological language of forgiveness. Indeed, the passage alerts us to the political dimension of this language, to which I have referred throughout this book. Robbie assumes that the onus of reconciliation is on Cecilia, rather than on her parents, and that, in spite of their past behaviour, it is she who will feel intense remorse if she fails to meet this responsibility. While this may be seen as a form of generosity on her part, it also confirms generational hierarchies and the gender politics of the family, recalling the patriarchal forgiveness scenarios of Dickens’s Dombey and Son. It is relevant that Robbie imagines Cecilia’s role as forgiving daughter for her, assuming that she has a strongly internalized sense of filial duty and is prone to intense daughterly remorse. Her actual behaviour in Atonement suggests otherwise, and Robbie arguably misreads – or is imagined by Briony as misreading – the woman he so dearly loves. Indeed, Cecilia is radically unlike the Florence of Dombey and Son in that she does not return contritely to her parental home, and neither asks for, nor grants, forgiveness.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

If Robbie feels that Cecilia should reconcile with her parents, he also ultimately controls his own resentment against Briony. When Briony, on the penultimate page of what turns out to be her own novel, expresses her remorse to Robbie, the latter’s response is remarkably restrained: She spoke slowly. ‘I’m very very sorry. I’ve caused you such terrible distress.’ [Robbie and Cecilia] continued to stare at her, and she repeated herself. ‘I’m very sorry.’ It sounded so foolish and inadequate, as though she had knocked over a favourite houseplant, or forgotten a birthday. Robbie said softly, ‘Just do all the things we’ve asked.’ It was almost conciliatory, that ‘just’, but not quite, not yet. (348)

This is as close as Atonement gets to a reconciliation scene, and while it marks a change from Robbie’s intense anger earlier in the chapter, it also forms at best a beginning. Any full ‘conciliation’ between Robbie and Cecilia on the one hand and Briony on the other remains hypothetical, deferred beyond the novel’s ending. Indeed, the passage asks whether there is a language, and a set of ritual conventions, adequate to the damage that Briony’s false testimony has unleashed. While, as the narrator points out, her ‘I’m sorry’ seems to belong to a different, more innocuous, category of wrongs, it is worth noting the conspicuous absence of the arguably more apposite ‘forgive me’. As we have seen, Atonement evokes the verb ‘to forgive’ various times, and it is remarkable, therefore, that the phrase ‘forgive me’ is withheld at the novel’s climax, and perhaps found wanting. Indeed, if Briony’s ‘I’m sorry’ is also an expression of remorse,32 Robbie gently dismisses it as insignificant. It is her actions – retracting her original testimony, revealing the truth of what happened in 1935 – that matter, and that constitute the only effective form of atonement. Yet it is also this confessional truth-telling that remains elusive throughout Atonement, since Briony’s adult account of the fateful events of 1935 is literary throughand-through, governed by principles of literary composition rather than factual accuracy, and made possible by her powers of the literary imagination. As Kim Worthington argues: Briony cannot imagine / write (however sincerely) the desired closure of confession – forgiveness which can only be granted by an other – without again performing the ‘crime’ of imagining that other in the (inevitably perspectivally limited) terms of her self-writing. There is no recourse to an omniscient vantage point – a ‘God’s-eye view’ – outside her self-reflexive narrative, from which the closure of absolution can finally be written.33

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Forgiveness is also a problematic concept in that it entails precisely the gesture by the wronged party which Atonement problematizes and finally withholds from the reader. As Briony remarks in her metafictional closing reflections, which echo her earlier ‘not quite, not yet’, ‘I gave [Robbie and Cecilia] happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet’ (371). In this respect, Robbie’s fantasy of asking absolution from war victims captures a broader thematic strand in Atonement: What meaning does forgiveness have in the face of the vast, irreparable destruction and suffering of the twentieth century, the dead unable to speak and beyond resurrection? This is underlined by the suggestion, in the novel’s coda, that Robbie and Cecilia may have died during the war, instead of being reunited after it. If this is indeed what happened, Robbie’s fantasy of absolution, and of turning back the tide of history, is a miniature version of Briony’s novel as a whole. This parallel between Robbie and Briony as novelist in turn casts doubt on the veracity or neutrality of her adult account of the events of 1935. The Robbie encountered by the reader is not the ‘historical’ Robbie, but a figure woven into a carefully composed literary structure, who serves at least in part as a screen onto which Briony projects her own writerly preoccupations, appropriating the perspective of the very characters whose forgiveness she purports to crave. In an important sense, therefore, Robbie is a figure of Briony herself. Such projection is also suggested by the scene in which Robbie contrives to save the RAF man from a vengeful mob. Briony here endows Robbie with precisely the ability to prevent wrong that she herself lacks – just as he rescues the lost twins in Part One. Through its literary artifice, therefore, Briony’s novel progressively obscures the very past which it sets out to recapture. In this sense, her own novel, as well as the novel in which it is embedded, doubles back on itself. While Briony’s unformed, naïve literary imagination as a thirteen-year-old sets in motion a destructive chain of events, the fiction which she writes as an adult writer ultimately fails in its aim of atoning for those very same events. In Atonement, therefore, the literary imagination attempts to atone for itself. Indeed, if the young Briony’s mistake lay in imposing her emerging writerly sense of fictional order and artifice on the real world – ‘her wish for a harmonious, organised world’ (5) – the novel which she produces as an adult does much the same thing, turning Robbie, for example, into a tool for exploring themes of guilt and the ethics of writing. Literary writing, Atonement suggests, cannot do without such artifice, and therefore necessarily carries with it a degree of distortion and appropriation.34


A Literary History of Reconciliation

The ethical role of literary writing is also thrown into doubt by Robbie’s musings on the uses of literature. In retrospect, Robbie, moving on to the more serious business of medicine, thinks of his degree course in English literature as merely an ‘absorbing parlour game’ (91). Yet he also thinks of literature, in unmistakably Arnoldian and Leavisite terms, as having broadened his mind in ways that will benefit him in his future role as a doctor: He would be a better doctor for having read literature. What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men towards ill health! […] He was thinking of the nineteenth-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment; his kind of doctor would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable; he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind. (93)

While Robbie rejects pseudo-religious ideas, ascribed by him to ‘Dr Leavis’ (91), of the study of literature as a ‘necessary priesthood’, he continues to endorse the Leavisite notion that literature is uniquely able to generate broad sympathies in readers. Yet this idea is also ironized by the narrator (who, as we later learn, is Briony herself): Robbie distills from his literary erudition primarily an attitude of superior aloofness and impersonal detachment. The sensitive doctor of Robbie’s imagination stands abstracted from humanity, seeing the suffering of his patients primarily as an occasion to ponder the mysteries of the human condition and to congratulate himself on his helicopter vision. The problem of literary self-atonement to which I have referred has a strongly theological dimension, addressed explicitly in a much-quoted passage in the novel’s coda: How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. (371)

The passage conveys a Derridean sense that forgiveness is literally otherworldly: it can ultimately be granted only by God, or by an entity not compromised by the state of being human and therefore not in need of forgiveness. In more

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directly theological terms, the passage suggests that human beings, inadequate and fallen, cannot redeem themselves, and are dependent on divine grace. On such a view, forgiveness can never be fully realized, only pursued or gestured at, within a strictly secular sphere. As an author, Briony may have godlike omnipotence in creating and ordering her fictional worlds, but she is a deity manquée not only in that she lacks the power to forgive (especially herself), but also in that her own sinfulness is the central fact which her novel sets out to address. In that sense, the analogy which Briony draws between novelists and God is incoherent, and ultimately underscores the difficulty of translating the concepts of atonement and forgiveness into the secular terms available to the novelist. Ultimately, Briony suggests, the literary imagination cannot take on the originally theological burden of forgiveness, and in this respect, the spiritual efficacy of literature is limited. ***

The various links between forgiveness, history, politics and the imagination which Atonement examines come together in young Briony’s musings on forgiveness in Part One. She explicitly reflects on the concept of forgiveness when Robbie returns from the search for the lost twins Jackson and Pierrot and is subsequently arrested. Briony sees Robbie’s efforts to find the twins as a ploy which she is sophisticated enough to see through: Did [Robbie] believe he could conceal his crime behind an apparent kindness, behind this show of being the good shepherd? This was surely a cynical attempt to win forgiveness for what could never be forgiven. She was confirmed again in her view that evil was complicated and misleading. (183)

Two pages later, Briony sees Cecilia runnning towards the police car that drives Robbie away. She is struck by what she misconstrues (not unlike Robbie himself later in the novel) as her sister’s forgiving nature, and meditates on the meaning of the term ‘forgiveness’: They had moved closer, and now Robbie spoke briefly, and half raised his locked hands and let them fall. She touched them with her own, and fingered his lapel, and then gripped it and shook it gently. It seemed a kindly gesture and Briony was touched by her sister’s capacity for forgiveness, if this was what it was. Forgiveness. The word had never meant a thing before, though Briony had heard it exulted at a thousand school and church occasions. And all the time, her sister had understood. (185)


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Taken together, these two passages shed light on the repercussions which the young Briony’s understanding of forgiveness have for the novel as a whole. Like other moments in Atonement, the first passage raises the spectre of unforgiveness – the idea, which haunts Briony, that some wrongs are beyond forgiveness. The reader is invited, of course, to see Briony’s youthful scepticism as misguided, and to see, at least in retrospect, that it is in fact Briony herself who has done something unforgivable, at least in her own later judgement, as well as in Cecilia’s sarcastic assessment: ‘Don’t worry, […] I won’t ever forgive you’ (337). Evil is ‘complicated and misleading’, therefore, in ways that the young Briony cannot begin to understand. Indeed, the metaphysical categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ themselves, characteristic of the young Briony’s thinking, are inadequate for understanding the complexities of guilt, agency and responsibility which Atonement examines. Yet they are the terms to which she intuitively resorts in her attempts to make sense of the world, and which she has distilled from the stories she reads as a child: ‘This was the story of a man whom everybody liked, but about whom the heroine always had her doubts, and finally she was able to reveal that he was the incarnation of evil’ (115). If the first passage demonstrates how Briony has been conditioned to place certain actions beyond the pale of forgiveness, the second passage reveals the more sentimental dimension of the forgiveness discourses that structure her youthful thinking.35 She has been taught to imagine forgiveness as a virtue to aspire to, and this uncritical celebration of forgiveness leads her to misread Cecilia’s behaviour at this point. Moreover, the forgiveness which she imagines Cecilia extending to Robbie is not only powerless against, but even complicit in, the forces that send Robbie to prison, and ultimately to his death in France (if that is indeed the ‘truth’ revealed by Briony’s novel). Far from granting him absolution, Robbie’s forgiveness, as imagined by Briony, is merely a ‘kindly gesture’ that ultimately helps to seal his fate by making it seem more palatable and humane. Both passages combined suggest that the notions of forgiveness which Briony has imbibed are deeply compromised – inadequate tools for reading human relations, while also being simultaneously cruel and sentimental. Briony’s reflections on forgiveness as eluding the novelist, finally, contain an evocative correlation between forgiveness and power. Novelists, Briony suggests, have placed themselves beyond a position in which they can even be in need of forgiveness because they are possessed of ‘absolute power’ within the realm of the fictions they craft. The implication is that forgiveness is predicated on

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power – that it is granted by a figure of power and to an inferior, with God as the ultimate figure of power and therefore the ultimate bestower of forgiveness. As we have seen, Atonement also evokes this relation between forgiveness and power more implicitly, when Cecilia writes to Robbie that ‘my mother never forgave you your first’ (209). Emily Tallis sees Robbie’s first as an unforgivable infringement on class hierarchies. On this view, both the granting – or withholding – of forgiveness and the sense of being wronged are the prerogatives of the higher classes. The language of forgiveness, therefore, can be complicit in the perpetuation of class hierarchies. Literature cannot atone, moreover, for the ingrained existence of such hierarchies, or for the history of injustice with which they are enmeshed.


‘The Prairie Still Shines like Transfiguration’: Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels – Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014) – can be seen as a sustained exploration of the nature of reconciliation, both in the intimate, domestic realm and in the political sphere.1 Central to these works is the language of forgiveness, pervasive especially in Gilead and Home. All three novels evince a fascination with forgiveness as a Christian ethical ideal, yet are also informed by a critical awareness of its fraught political dimension. Indeed, the Gilead novels associate theological notions of forgiveness both with a kind of intimate, personal graciousness and with a politically quietist form of Christianity that has become unmoored from the progressive, religiously inspired radicalism whose origins Robinson locates in the mid-nineteenth century. While the Gilead novels are set in an all-white, 1950s Iowa, they trace a longterm history of race relations in the United States, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. John Ames’s grandfather – a Congregationalist preacher like Ames himself, and like Ames’s father – was a radical abolitionist who fought on the Unionist side in the Civil War. The socially progressive, selfsacrificing – if also violent – Protestant activism which he embodies held out a politico-religious promise of a post-racist America that, the novels suggest, was abandoned during the Reconstitution era. This failure of Reconstruction has produced the genteel but politically indifferent, and therefore reactionary, mid-twentieth-century Protestantism of John Ames and Robert Boughton. Their version of Protestantism revolves around a depoliticized understanding of forgiveness, in which individual domestic transgressions are seen as more pressing, and as more urgently requiring both divine and interpersonal forgiveness, than systemic racial injustice. Ames and Boughton employ the


A Literary History of Reconciliation

language of forgiveness, therefore, in ways that enable a smoothing over of political injustice, and especially of racial oppression. The Gilead novels imagine ways in which Christian notions of forgiveness – and of the nature of Christianity more broadly – can once again come to inspire and underpin a progressive, liberating worldview. Yet such progressive forgiveness is not realized in the novels themselves but deferred to an imagined, hypothetical moment in the future – as in Glory Boughton’s meditations at the end of Home – or even to an imagined afterlife – as in Lila Dahl’s fantasies about heaven in the closing pages of Lila. This deferral has a clearly politico-historical resonance: the Gilead novels imagine the mid-nineteenth-century political promise of racial justice as realized only in an indeterminate future. The main focus of this chapter is on Gilead and Home, which most prominently feature issues of reconciliation and forgiveness. At the same time, Lila is crucial for what the Gilead novels in their entirety suggest about the nature of reconciliation. If in Gilead, Lila remains a shadowy figure, we come to know more about her in Home, while Lila is narrated entirely from her perspective. Indeed, the examination in the Gilead novels of the complex relations between forgiveness, theology and politics culminate in Lila’s fantasies about the afterlife.

Familial forgiveness in Gilead and Home Gilead is an extended letter written by the 77-year-old Ames to his seven-yearold son Robby, to be read by him at some point in the future, after Ames’s death. Forgivingness is one of the religious and ethical principles which Ames seeks to impart to Robby, and which he feels was imparted to himself by his father and grandfather. One of his fullest statements on the issue reads as follows: If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. […] You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. (124)

Divine grace, in Ames’s theology, entails a human responsibility to act graciously towards others. It serves to liberate human beings both from their own worst impulses and from the ways they have been conditioned to respond. The

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


sheer otherness of divine forgiveness enables us to see our apparently natural responses to injury as contingent and open to change. As we will see, Gilead dramatizes Ames’s own struggles with this deeply held belief – with his own limited abilities to put it into practice and with the political implications of the idea that it is possible to ‘act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate’. In a similar moment, Ames retrieves an old sermon on forgiveness from his attic and explains to Robby that it compares forgiveness of real-world financial debts (in the context of the Marshall Plan) to ‘divine grace, and to the Prodigal Son and his restoration to his place in his father’s house, though he neither asks to be restored as son nor even repents of the grief he has caused his father’ (161). Ames sees the Prodigal Son as being forgiven spontaneously, unconditionally and non-transactionally by his loving father. The sermon also suggests that the parable of the Prodigal Son places the hearer in the position of the forgiving father: ‘to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves’ (161). Once again, Ames expresses a fundamental belief in what we might call ‘trickle-down forgiveness’. Divine forgiveness constitutes an imperative in the interpersonal sphere: we participate in divine grace, furthering its effects in the human sphere, by resisting the urge to judge others, to feel resentment or to be vengeful. Indeed, Ames repeatedly impresses on his son the need to refrain from judgement: ‘Let me say first of all that the grace of God is sufficient to any transgression, and that to judge is wrong, the origin and essence of much error and cruelty’ (155). As he notes elsewhere, ‘it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault’ (189). In Home, Ames’s close friend Boughton, a Presbyterian minister, preaches a similar gospel of forgiveness. Like Ames, Boughton sees forgiveness not as transactional but as a radical, unconditional first move that may set the larger process of reconciliation in motion: There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. Her father had said this more than once, in sermons, with appropriate texts, but the real text was Jack, and those to whom he spoke were himself and the row of Boughtons in the front pew, which usually did not include Jack, and then, of course, the congregation. If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace. (45)


A Literary History of Reconciliation

As this passage suggests, for Boughton, forgiveness is especially a domestic, familial issue. In practical terms, his principal concern is with his own forgiveness of his son John Ames Boughton, known as Jack: Ames’s godson, ‘ne’er-do-well’ and ‘black sheep’ (69) of the Boughton family. As a child, Jack was given to unsettling forms of mischief and petty crime, while as a young man, he fathered the child of a destitute young woman named Annie Wheeler, subsequently abandoning both and leaving Gilead. In the Gilead novels, Jack has returned after a twenty-year absence. It is primarily in relation to Jack that Ames and Boughton evoke the idea of forgiveness as an act of generous, unconditional love. In Gilead, Ames views Boughton as embodying the spontaneous, loving forgiveness of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son: ‘Jack has grieved his father terribly and he has been forgiven always, instantly, and I have only grieved Boughton myself when he has felt I was slow to forgive Jack’ (189). Ames is also confident that the elderly Boughton whom we encounter in Gilead and Home would be ‘extravagant’ in his forgiveness of Jack, abandoning ‘all those handsome children of his’ to follow the son he loves most, if only he could be young and able-bodied once again, not hampered by his ‘decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation’ (238). In the figure of Jack, Robinson in fact tests the limits of the forgiveness gospel preached by Ames and Boughton. As suggested in the last quotation in the previous paragraph, Ames thinks of the elderly Boughton as finding it hard to forgive Jack. As we learn from Glory’s narrative in Home, moreover, Boughton also struggled to forgive Jack in the past, ‘brood[ing] and mutter[ing] for days at a time, as if he were absorbing the fact that some transgressions are beyond a mere mortal’s capacity to forgive’ (18). Indeed, Glory describes her father as coming ‘to the last inch of his power to forgive, and there was Jack, still far beyond his reach’ (56). Boughton falls short, then, of the spontaneously forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, whom especially Ames likes to evoke. Yet Ames himself also falls short of this ideal. While he idealizes Boughton’s capacity for forgiveness, he is also irritated by what he takes to be the other man’s endless, unmerited forgiveness of Jack. He is irked, in other words, that Boughton’s attitude towards his son – at least in Ames’s own assessment – mirrors God’s unmerited forgiveness of sinful humans. The ‘disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving’ (73) is appropriate to divine forgiveness but can be jarring, he feels, in interpersonal relations. Ames sees Jack as belonging to a special category of sinners, incapable of reform. Meditating on Jack’s past involvement with Annie Wheeler, he notes that ‘sinners are not all dishonorable people, not by any means. But those who are dishonorable never really repent

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


and never really reform’ (156). While he acknowledges that ‘repentance and reformation are matters of the soul which only the Lord can judge’, he does think of ‘dishonour’ as especially ‘recalcitrant’ (157). As Ames’s reference to ‘dishonour’ makes clear, Jack has transgressed against a code of honourable masculinity, which holds, for example, that sexual transgression is a profound sin, and that men accept the consequences of their sexual transgressions. Jack, that is to say, should have married Annie Wheeler, and Ames sees his failure to do so as a sign of deep, unregenerate sinfulness. In Home, Glory reflects that when Jack got into trouble as a child, his father ‘would always intercede for him’, while Jack himself ‘could apologize as fluently as any of the rest of the Boughtons could say the Apostles’s Creed’ (6). Jack’s ability to observe, in a purely formal spirit, the ritual rules of apology alerts us to the larger theme of familial reconciliation rituals in the Gilead novels. Since the Boughton and Ames families exhibit so much conflict, these rituals are sorely needed, but they are also inadequate, limited in their efficacy or part of a nostalgically evoked past that has little bearing on the present. An example of the latter is Glory’s childhood memory of how her mother would always cook ‘something fragrant’ after a family conflict: ‘it would mean peace if they had fought and amnesty if they had been in trouble’ (252). Glory herself re-enacts this reconciliation ritual from the past after Jack’s drunken suicide attempt, yet it fails to have the effect it once had. The role of maternal reconciler is no longer available. In fact, the meal which Glory prepares forms the prelude to the final and most painful dialogue between Jack and Boughton, in which the impossibility of definitive reconciliation between them becomes clear. It is in this scene that Boughton confesses that he has tried many times ‘not to love [Jack] so much’ and wonders why Jack ‘didn’t love us’ (272). Earlier in the novel, Boughton confesses that he is still mystified by Jack’s childhood behaviour, still anxious to know why Jack never seemed to ‘feel at home in the house where he was born’ (115). In their final conversation, Boughton still does not understand Jack, while also being incapable of understanding himself, wondering why he cannot help but love Jack so much. In this sense, there has been no progress, no move towards reconciliation. Jack, in turn, seems to share Ames’s and Boughton’s sense that his transgressions have placed him beyond forgiveness, both divine and interpersonal: ‘Somehow I have never felt that grace was intended for me, particularly’ (271). Jack’s ability as a child to observe only the forms of family reconciliation rituals suggests that these rituals had always been fraught. Indeed, Glory’s childhood


A Literary History of Reconciliation

is also the setting of another failed reconciliation ritual, narrated early in the novel. The Boughton family has anti-religious, stridently left-wing neighbours known among the Boughtons as the ‘Trotskys’. One day, the Boughton children trample on their alfalfa field – strictly speaking part of the Boughton property – during a game of baseball. When, on their father’s instruction, they come to apologize, they are met with self-righteous hostility: ‘Owning land just to keep it from others. That is all you learn from your father the priest! Mine, mine, mine!’ (11). While the children were initially demurely apologetic, this response stirs fantasies of vengeance in them. Mrs Trotsky is able to view the situation only from her own, narrowly judgemental perspective, incapable of entering into the children’s point of view. The difficulties of empathy, and the inscrutability of others, in fact form one important obstacle to the reconciliations in the Gilead trilogy. As we will see below, this is most urgently true for the reconciliations between Jack on the one hand and Ames and Boughton on the other. Gilead evokes the issue of failed reconciliation rituals in relation to Ames’s older brother Edward, who went to study philosophy in Germany, where he came to reject his Christian faith. Edward’s disavowal of Christianity leads to a rift between him and his family. When he visits the family home after his return from Germany, he refuses to say grace before dinner, claiming that he cannot ‘in good conscience’ (26) do so. He humiliates his parents, furthermore, by dismissing the religious beliefs of his childhood as childlike, half-quoting the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13:11: ‘When I was a child, I thought as a child. Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things’ (26).2 Angered and hurt, Ames’s father leaves the table, while his mother ‘sat still in her chair with tears streaming down her face’ (26). Edward’s strident, intellectually rigorous atheism is insensitive on an interpersonal level, creating intergenerational estrangement similar, as we will see, to the conflict between his father and grandfather. During his brief return to Gilead, Edward plays baseball with John, halfironically reciting Psalm 133: ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is, / For brethren to dwell together in unity!’ (64). Baseball is a recurrent motif in both Gilead and Home – the baseball game which the Boughton children play, referred to above, is one example. While, as we have seen, the children’s baseball game forms the prelude to a tense confrontation with the ‘Trotskys’, baseball is evoked here as a successful reconciliation ritual, creating a sense of fraternity between Edward and John. ‘After that day’, Ames writes to his son, ‘I did feel pretty much at ease about the state of his soul’ (64). Yet as Susan Petit points out in a perceptive article on the role of baseball in Gilead and Home, this moment of harmony does not lead to a lasting rapprochement

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


between John and Edward, and they ‘never ha[ve] the theological discussions for which Ames hope[s]’,3 in part because Ames himself is afraid of ruining ‘the good time [they]’d had that one day playing catch’ (239). Petit further argues that professional baseball, in both novels, ‘is used to highlight the sorry history of American race relations from around 1890 to the middle of the twentieth century’.4 The references in Gilead to Bud Fowler, the earliest known professional African American baseball player, are a case in point. Ames has indistinct memories of being taken to Des Moines by his grandfather to see Fowler play and does not know what eventually became of him: ‘I followed his career in the newspaper for years, until they started up the Negro Leagues, and then I sort of lost track of him’ (48). Ames is unaware that ‘baseball was already moving toward full segregation’ when he saw Fowler play (which was around 1890); in 1887 the International League ‘agreed not to hire any new African American players due to growing white resistance to integration’.5 This is also what led to the founding of the Negro Leagues in the early twentieth century. Ames is unaware, in other words, that the reasons why he lost track of Fowler are deeply political. Far from being an adequate conduit for reconciliation, therefore, baseball in fact serves as a metonymy for a fraught American racial history that haunts especially Gilead and Home. While race has shaped both the collective history of Gilead and the more intimate histories of the Ames and Boughton families, it has also slipped from the consciousness of Boughton and Ames’s generation. It is to these issues that we shall now turn.

Familial conflict and history The fraught relationship between Boughton and Jack is echoed in the unresolved conflict between Ames’s father and grandfather. Early on in Gilead, Ames tells his son that ‘a little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine’ (6), the first of a series of exhortations to forgiveness and graciousness. Anger is in fact central to the family history which Ames recounts: ‘it grieved my father bitterly that the last words he said to his father were very angry words and there could never be any reconciliation between them in this life’ (10). His warning to his son is rooted, therefore, in personal experience and is in part an attempt to break the history of family conflict which he has witnessed. The conflict between Ames’s father and grandfather is rooted in a disagreement about the relation between Christianity and politics. Grandfather


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Ames, as Ames tells his son, ‘was an acquaintance of John Brown, and of Jim Lane, too’ (47).6 He moved from Maine to Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas era in the 1850s, to help the Free Soil Party establish the right to vote on a state constitution that would decide on the abolition of slavery in Kansas. He also fought in the Union Army, losing an eye during the Civil War. Grandfather Ames’s radical commitment to abolitionism is religiously inspired. He tells his grandson of a vision he had as a teenager of Christ ‘bound in chains’, an embodiment of oppressed, suffering humanity: ‘My grandfather said, “Those irons had rankled right down to His bones”’ (49). It is this vision which makes him decide to devote his life to the abolitionist cause. Grandfather Ames’s vision of Christ can usefully be seen as the political version of the belief in the sanctity of the human person which Ames himself espouses, and which he shares with Boughton. As Ames tells his son, ‘Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it’ (66).7 Although Ames understands the ‘sacredness of the human creature’ (91) to be universal, both he and Boughton do not see this theological principle as having political ramifications. For grandfather Ames, by contrast, Christ is present especially in every human being who suffers from oppression. His sense of the sanctity of the human person, therefore, is fundamentally political. Ames’s father utterly rejects grandfather Ames’s violent radicalism. He avoids discussing his father’s abolitionist past, feeling that it is ‘best forgotten’ (76) and is convinced that violent political struggle ‘has nothing to do with Jesus’ (85). As a result of their conflict, grandfather Ames eventually moves back to Kansas, in anger at his son’s rejection of radicalism, leaving behind some sermons and a pistol. Ames’s father is ‘disgusted’ (79) by this symbolic blend of religion and violence. Indeed, he sees grandfather Ames’s violent abolitionist past as a form of original sin which has been passed on down the generations, and for which he has to atone personally. This sense of historical guilt is intensified by what he sees as his own complicity, as a young boy, in the violent abolitionist struggle. He feels intense guilt – ‘I never did forgive myself ’ (109) – about not going out to look for a US Army soldier who had been injured and abandoned by grandfather Ames; Ames’s father suspects the injury was fatal. At the same time, Ames’s father feels guilty about staying away from grandfather Ames’s church after the war, out of protest against the latter’s violent radicalism. In his way, he is just as principled as grandfather Ames, therefore, and his moral principles initially seemed to justify a familial rift: ‘My father said he had regretted and repented his whole life since that time but never sufficiently, because at first staying away

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


had seemed an act of principle almost. His father had preached his people into the war’ (100–101). Ames himself feels implicated in this politicized family history, yet ‘without knowing what I was implicated in’ (82). His limited understanding of the politico-historical significance of his grandfather’s ties with John Brown stem in part from his father’s reluctance to discuss the past. This silence about the past is passed on, albeit reluctantly, by Ames to his son Robby: ‘I wish I could tell you more about that’ (47). Ames does experience a kind of unnamable guilt as a dark, lingering presence that abides ‘in pools and danknesses, just as native as water’ (82). Indeed, he construes transgression more generally in terms of a universal, original sin, a state of general human fallenness. ‘There is never just one transgression’, he writes to his son: ‘There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all’ (122). Ames’s generalized sense of transgression helps to obscure the political meaning of grandfather Ames’s past and contributes to his broader obliviousness – discussed in more detail below – of the more historically and politically specific original sin of racial injustice. Likewise, the belief, held by Ames’s father, that ‘peace is its own reward’ and ‘its own justification’ (84) sidesteps the fact that the terms of that peace can be unjust and that to celebrate peace – and therefore reconciliation – uncritically may imply acquiescence in injustice. This is in fact the belief held by Ames’s grandfather, who insisted that ‘while there was slavery there was no peace’ (101). Indeed, the fragile and ultimately unsustainable truce between father and grandfather Ames suggests that peace can be ineffective if it is premised on an inevitably selective, politically charged forgetting. Both men had ‘buried their differences’ in a ‘spirit of Christian forgiveness’, yet as Ames explains, ‘they buried them not very deeply’ (34), always liable to re-erupt. Their failure to reconcile is manifested precisely in their mutual, ritual insistence that they have not been ‘offended […] in any way at all’ (34), denying the undeniable. In the Gilead novels, then, the most intimate forms of conflict are at the same time deeply enmeshed with broader political and historical contexts. Yet Ames’s understanding of – and his interest in – the significance of those contexts is initially limited. Indeed, the failure of reconciliation between his father and grandfather leads him to insist on the importance of forgiveness in a highly personal, domestic and ultimately depoliticized sense. As a young child, Ames experienced the estrangement between his father and grandfather as a form of personal loss: he missed the strange, unnerving but memorable grandfather who disappeared from his life as a result of a conflict over the relation between Christianity and politics. Yet the political dimension of this


A Literary History of Reconciliation

conflict is beyond his grasp and never properly elucidated by his father. As a result, Ames is simultaneously preoccupied by conflict and unable to probe its deeper causes. His father, espousing an apolitical pacifism, was convinced that the violent abolitionism embraced by grandfather Ames is fundamentally unchristian, yet he failed to register the legitimate political concerns by which it was inspired. Ames’s understanding of the nature of forgiveness, then, is the product of a larger, long-term process of post–Civil War political forgetting. This political oblivion brings with it a literal domestication of Christianity: both Ames and Boughton are preoccupied with forgiveness and with their own failure to forgive, in an exclusively domestic, familial sphere. The political implications of this understanding of forgiveness are examined in the next section.

Politics and the language of forgiveness Ames’s describes his grandfather as ‘unreposeful’ (49) and his own father as seeing tacit ‘accusations’ (34) in this unreposefulness. Grandfather Ames’s unreposefulness is rooted, of course, in a sense of restless anger at racial injustice, and Ames and his father are arguably too reposeful in their political quietism. This becomes clear, for example, from Ames’s lack of interest in identifying the precise causes of a fire at the local African American church in Gilead. He reports merely that ‘someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it, and someone else saw the fire and put the flames out’ (36, my italics). He is also remarkably unaffected by its eventual disappearance from Gilead. He confesses he does not know its pastor well and does not evince any understanding of its historical significance or of the ties between the church and his own family history, blankly noting that its members ‘were sorry to leave, because this town had once meant a great deal to them’ (37). Ames, then, has become unmoored from Iowa’s political past, evoked by his grandfather in one of his sermons, in which he remarks that Ulysses S. Grant referred to Iowa as ‘the shining star of radicalism’ (176).8 In Home, Jack alludes to the phrase when he returns to the Boughton home after twenty years and tells his sister Glory that ‘now I’m home again in Iowa, the shining star of radicalism. It is the desire of the tattered moth for the shining star that has brought me home’ (210). As we learn in the course of both Gilead and Home, Jack’s wry joke is in fact deadly serious: he has returned to Gilead mainly to discover whether it is a place where he and his mixed-race family can live together in peace. During his long absence, he married Della, an African American woman, with whom

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


he has a son named Robert. That Jack has named his son after his own father suggests not only that he feels a deeper bond with his family than his twentyyear absence might suggest but also hints at his hope that his mixed-race son will be welcomed into his family. When Jack tells Ames, in Gilead, that God ‘does not enforce anti-miscegenation laws’ (220), he is hinting openly at the religiously inspired struggle against racial oppression embraced by grandfather Ames, suggesting that Christianity and anti-racism should be synonymous. Yet what Jack encounters on his return to Gilead is not a religious commitment to social change but political indifference, especially in his father. When, in Home, the two are watching news reports of anti-desegregration protests in Alabama, Jack explains that a ‘colored woman wants to go to the University of Alabama’. His father replies that ‘I have nothing against the colored people. I do think they’re going to need to improve themselves, though, if they want to be accepted’ (155).9 Distressed by the news reports, moreover, Jack swears. While Boughton is offended by Jack’s profanity, he does not consider that systemic racial injustice may be the more pressing moral and spiritual problem. His indifference and his belief that African Americans ‘need to improve themselves’ in fact constitute a form of passive racism. Boughton’s horror of violence does not lead him to condemn violence against African Americans. To an important extent, Boughton’s failure to grasp the reality of racial oppression stems from his preoccupation with forgiveness. His attempt to reassure Jack that he has ‘nothing against the colored people’, spoken in a ‘statesmanlike’ manner, is also an ‘effort to be mild and conciliatory’ (155) and to show his willingness to forgive Jack’s profanity. It is precisely in his assumptions about the nature of forgiveness, therefore, that Boughton’s lack of political understanding becomes visible. This is also suggested during a similar conversation between Boughton and Jack, earlier in the novel. Jack swears at seeing footage of ‘police pushing [a] black crowd back with dogs’ (97). Again, his father is offended only by Jack’s swearing, while also dismissing the anti-racism protests as historically insignificant: ‘In six months nobody will remember one thing about it’ (97). The friction between forgiveness and political justice is addressed most explicitly at the end of this conversation, when Boughton summarizes his views on these issues: ‘No need to be sorry, Jack. Young people want the world to change and old people want it to stay the same. And who is to judge between thee and me? We just have to forgive each other’ (98). The language of forgiveness here serves to forestall genuine political debate and to create a suggestion that there is no right and wrong in political disagreement.


A Literary History of Reconciliation

Such disagreement, Boughton implies, can be reduced to a mere, ethically neutral difference in perspective. Forgiveness, for him, is primarily a matter of acknowledging and accepting this. Yet Boughton’s stance is in fact far from ethically or politically neutral, as when he asks Jack to ‘respect’ (98) his sensibilities by not swearing, all but explicitly classifying Jack’s more political sensibilities as less morally urgent. It is especially in the ostensibly impartial, magnanimous language of forgiveness that the inevitability of political judgement becomes apparent. Although Boughton appeals to Jack to refrain from judgement, his words are, of course, an implicit apology for the political status quo, and with that for racial oppression. The political quietism of Boughton’s theology of forgiveness also comes to the fore when Glory reflects on the ‘rarefied’ understanding of sin in her father’s sermons as ‘a matter of acts and omissions so commonplace that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them either—the uncharitable thought, the neglected courtesy’ (111). On this view of sin as pervasive in the smallest everyday acts, no one, not ‘even the most virtuous person’ (111), is in a position to judge others. Yet it also entails a flattening out of ethics, suggesting that all sins are equally grave. While this may be, on some level, a charitable view, it also leads to political apathy, for example in Boughton’s sense that racism is not a worse evil than swearing or even swearing at seeing racism in action. In spite of its radical abolitionist past, then, Gilead in the late 1950s is not a place where Jack’s mixed-race family can live in safety. Gilead strongly suggests that the theology of John Ames and Robert Boughton, for all its gentleness, has become disconnected from the socio-political issues that were so central to the Christianity of Ames’s grandfather. In Home, Boughton remembers Ames’s grandfather as a man ‘about as crazy as it’s possible to be and still be walking the streets’, dismissing what he sees as the ‘fanaticism’ of ‘the early days’ (204) of Iowa. Likewise, the pacifism espoused by Ames’s father leads to a form of political quietism and resignation, just as Ames’s and Boughton’s preoccupation with divine forgiveness of sinful humanity renders them blind to the various forms of political injustice which humans inflict on each other. The Gilead novels ultimately insist that, unlike Ames and Boughton, we do judge – even though they do not invite us unequivocally to applaud grandfather Ames’s political use of violence.10 To abstain from judgement altogether, they suggest, is tantamount to political resignation and to a countenancing of injustice. As the next section argues, this insight also entails a different understanding of forgiveness.

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


Reimagining the politics of forgiveness The final sentence of Gilead is taken from King Lear: ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep’ (3.4.27). Immediately after this line, Lear speaks his famous lines on the human suffering and injustice to which he has been oblivious: Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your lopped and windowed raggedness defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp, Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou may’st shake the superflux to them And show the heavens more just. (3.4.28–36)

If Lear, in this scene, acknowledges his former moral and political blindness, Ames too has been oblivious both to Jack Boughton’s spiritual anguish and to the racial and social injustice that continues to exist in the town of Gilead and in the United States more broadly. Ames initially does not see Jack’s shame and unease and fails to observe that the latter’s behaviour is almost constantly apologetic, an extended plea for forgiveness. In the last sixty pages of Gilead, Ames does come to realize that he has failed in his pastoral duties to Jack: ‘I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor, knowing as I do what an uneasy spirit he is. That is disgraceful’ (186). It is in part this awareness of his own failings that enables him eventually to forgive Jack. In doing so, he becomes a kind of father figure for Jack, adopting a position similar to the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He comes to understand Jack’s ‘utter weariness’ and forgives him, able to do no other, like the Prodigal Son’s father: ‘I could only forgive him’ (230). When Ames starts to imagine Jack as a kind of son, finding ‘considerable satisfaction’ in the idea of Jack coming home to him, ‘weary from whatever life he had’, he also has what is perhaps his most powerful vision of grace, as ‘a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials’ (197). Ames ultimately blesses Jack ‘to the limit of my powers’ (241), feeling that this moment in itself makes his life as a minister worthwhile. Behind Ames’s eventual ability to forgive Jack is also an awakening of his political awareness. He now sees, for example, that Jack has to leave because he knows that Gilead cannot be a home to his family. Ames comes to


A Literary History of Reconciliation

understand, in other words, the tragic double-bind in which Jack is caught, unable to avoid hurting his father because Gilead is unable to offer him and his family shelter, and because, as becomes especially evident in Home, his father is incapable of grasping his predicament. In this sense, Ames also comes to see the weight of American history which presses on Jack, and that right and wrong cannot be understood in purely personal terms or in terms of individual agency only. His understanding of when and why it can be wrong to judge, therefore, is deepened. Early in Gilead, Ames remembers his grandfather as being forgiving of ‘drunkards and ne’er-do-wells’: ‘He just said, “Judge not,” and of course that’s Scripture and hard to contradict’ (33). Ironically, it is precisely the drunkard and ne’er-do-well Jack whom Ames finds it impossible not to judge. In eventually forgiving and blessing Jack, therefore, Ames also implicitly becomes more like his radical grandfather, arriving at a more political understanding of forgiveness. Alert as he was to systemic injustice, grandfather Ames was forgiving and non-judgemental first and foremost towards the marginalized. Jack also kindles an awareness in Ames of the reasons why there is no longer an African American church in Gilead. Ames initially denies that the church fire was arson – ‘a little nuisance fire’ – and dismisses it as a thing of the past: ‘it happened many years ago’ (231). When Jack counters that ‘it has [also] been many years since there was a Negro church’ (231), Ames is unable to reply, sensing that Jack is implicitly defying him to make Gilead once again welcoming to African Americans – as well as to Jack’s own mixed-race family. While Ames himself, old and frail as he is, can no longer embark on such a mission, his closing benediction to Robby suggests that he has been changed by his recent encounters with Jack: ‘I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country’ (247). Ames, it seems, hopes that his son will recover some of grandfather Ames’s political courage and rekindle some of the politicoreligious promises of the nineteenth century from which Ames himself has become disconnected. If Ames’s political awareness is rekindled by Jack, the arrival of the drifter Lila in Gilead has a similar effect on Ames. He responds very strongly to Lila’s first appearance in his church, experiencing her presence as an urgent command to deliver a meaningful sermon. What Ames senses, but does not make explicit, is that Lila’s presence is a silent rebuke to him in his role as preacher, daring him to offer a sermon that will speak to her as a destitute woman on the margins of society. The genteel Christianity which he has preached throughout his life as a minister suddenly seems inadequate:

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


There was a seriousness about her that seemed almost like a kind of anger. As though she might say, ‘I came here from whatever unspeakable distance and from whatever unimaginable otherness just to oblige your prayers. Now say something with a little meaning in it.’ My sermon was like ashes on my tongue. (21)

The Gilead novels as a whole invite us to see this ‘something with a little meaning in it’ as political, insisting as they do on the links between Christianity and progressive ideals. While Lila remains a relatively marginal figure in Gilead, she does offer an important perspective on forgiveness, intuitively embracing an inclusive understanding of forgiveness which her husband only arrives at much later. This is hinted at in Ames’s description of her speech habits: ‘It don’t matter,’ she would say, in that low, soft voice of hers. That was what she said when she meant she forgave someone, but it had a sound of deeper sadder resignation, as if she were forgiving the whole of the created order, forgiving the Lord Himself. […] It was as if she were renouncing the world itself just in order to make nothing of some offense to her. (149)

Lila’s manner of forgiving, in this passage, is all-embracing and nontransactional. That it also seems to entail a ‘renouncing’ of the world suggests an awareness on her part that forgiveness is incompatible with the world as she has come to know it. Lila’s understanding of forgiveness as generous and non-transactional is further suggested immediately after this passage, during a debate on predestination in which she initially remains silent. Especially Jack, with his intense sense of personal failings, is preoccupied by the doctrine of predestination and presses Ames and Boughton on their ideas about the issue. Jack is especially interested in the implications of predestination for the question of personal change and moral transformation. He clearly feels that he may be one of the reprobate, ineligible for divine forgiveness. When Ames opines that ‘a person’s behavior is consistent with his nature’, Jack teases out the implications of this: ‘People don’t change, then’ (151). At the end of the debate, Lila intervenes, reassuring Jack that ‘a person can change. Everything can change’ (153). Lila will reveal from what depths of experience her remark springs: in her life with Ames, she has found a form of – admittedly difficult and fragile – security from which she had seemed permanently excluded. The Gilead novels as a whole, moreover, invite us to read her words as also echoing grandfather Ames’s commitment to social change, and therefore to


A Literary History of Reconciliation

read them in both personal and political terms. Indeed, Ames’s wish, at the end of Gilead, that his son will grow up to be a ‘brave man in a brave country’ recalls not only grandfather Ames but also Lila’s belief in the possibility of change. That Lila’s notion of forgiveness is imbued with an awareness of social injustice is more emphatically underscored in Lila. The Bible passages to which she is drawn are tales of suffering similar to her own – Job and Ezekiel: ‘No eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born’.11 Ezekiel’s ‘visions of God’ (67; Ezekiel 1:1) echo grandfather Ames’s vision of Christ in chains and at the end of the novel that carries her name, Lila is given what is perhaps the most comprehensive and most politically resonant vision of forgiveness in the Gilead novels. In the novel’s final pages, Lila remembers a homeless and nameless boy who had sought shelter in the shed just outside Gilead where Lila herself took refuge when she first came to Gilead. (Like the closing sentence of Gilead, the encounter between Lila and the boy evokes Act 4 of King Lear, in which Lear seeks shelter in a hovel, together with ‘Poor Tom’ and Gloucester.) The details of the boy’s personal history remain shadowy but he claims that he killed his father in a fit of rage at the abuse he had suffered at this father’s hands. Lila imagines the boy, who is in some ways a version of herself, being reunited and reconciled with his father in the afterlife: There that mangy old father would be, too, because the boy couldn’t bear heaven without him. He’d say, See, you was lucky to have me for a son, after all! Look what I done for you! […] He’d be as proud of heaven as if he’d come up with it all on his own. (259)

For Lila, heaven will be like this because the boy desires it so, unable to bear the idea of a heaven without his hate-filled, abusive father – of a heaven, therefore, in which earthly conflicts have not been resolved. Indeed, in this imagined heaven, a form of reconciliation occurs which can only be dreamt about in this life – just as, in Gilead, Ames’s father and grandfather could never be reconciled ‘in this life’ (10). Gone up to heaven ‘fresh from the gallows’, the boy is ‘shocked at the kindness’ (259) by which he finds himself surrounded and which confounds all of his expectations. Lila herself, too, feels a strong need to conceive of heaven as a place in which forgiveness is extended to everyone who has ever mattered to her, especially Doll, the drifter who rescued her as an abandoned child, and who is eventually arrested after she kills a man in a knife fight, leaving Lila on her own. She reflects that ‘it was

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


eternity that let her think like that without a bit of shame’ (260): only in fantasies about the afterlife can such full reconciliation occur. Lila wonders whether ‘a soul in bliss [can] feel a weight lift off his heart’ (258), and her question evokes Lear’s reunion with Cordelia, shortly before her famous ‘no cause, no cause’: You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave: Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead. (4.6.45–48)

Much like the boy in Lila, Lear is shocked to find himself met with kindness rather than resentment by Cordelia: ‘I know you do not love me’ (4.6.77). The weight which Lila imagines being lifted in heaven is the reality of unresolved, intractable conflict in one’s earthly life, the boy finally reconciled with his father. Yet Robinson also underlines that this is how Lila imagines heaven. Indeed, the moment can be seen as the culmination of a theme that runs through the Gilead novels: the propensity which Robinson’s characters have for fantasizing about life in heaven. The ways in which they imagine the afterlife, moreover, are conditioned by their earthly lives – moulded, as they themselves are aware, from the materials made available by life in this world. In Gilead, Boughton sees ‘the imagination of heaven as the best pleasure of this world’, forming his ideas about the afterlife by thinking ‘about the splendors of the world and multiply[ing] by two’ (147). Ames himself likes to think of his own heavenly state as one of ‘perpetual vigorous adulthood’ (166). In a touching passage, Ames imagines himself and his seven-year-old son Robby reunited in heaven as adult men in the prime of their lives: I believe that as you read this I will not be old, and when I see you, at the end of your good long life, neither of us will be old. We will be like brothers. This is how I imagine it. Sometimes when you crawl into my lap and settle against me and I feel that light, quick strength of your body and the weightiness of your head, when you’re cold from playing in the sprinkler or warm from your bath at night, and you lie in my arms and fiddle with my beard and tell me what you’ve been thinking about, that is perfectly pleasant, and I imagine your child self finding me in heaven and jumping into my arms, and there is a great joy in the thought. Still, the other is better, and more likely to be somewhere near the reality of the situation, I believe. (165–166)

Lila’s vision of heaven at the end of Lila clearly echoes this moment, for example in that both imagine a reunion between father and son. Yet Lila’s vision is arguably


A Literary History of Reconciliation

more profound, and more resonant, than Ames’s, in that it engages more clearly with the spiritual and political issues examined throughout the Gilead novels and with the centrality to those issues of the question of reconciliation. Lila has a clearer understanding than her husband of social injustice, imagining heaven as a place where the marginalized and oppressed – condemned by an unjust society – find forgiveness. Indeed, the afterlife as she envisions it obviates forgiveness, since it does away with the injustices of earthly social orders and therefore with the politics of forgiveness. The boy in the shed, that is to say, is no longer in need of forgiveness nor has he entered heaven because his sins have been forgiven. Rather, in heaven, his earthly suffering as a human being on the margins of society is acknowledged and lifted. Lila’s thoughts also go out to ‘that son of Boughton’s’, whom she similarly imagines as being united with those whom he ‘couldn’t bear to be without’ (258). Lila’s heaven is a place where he, Della and their son Robert, too, can live in peace and liberty. Lila’s meditations on heaven therefore resonate with the ending of Home, when Della and Robert show up at the Boughton home, shortly after Jack has left. After a brief conversation with Glory, Della and Robert leave again: 1950s Gilead is not safe for them. Left by herself, Glory imagines Robert returning, at some moment in the future, to his father’s childhood home: What of Jack will there be in him? And I will be almost old. […] He will be curious about the place, though his curiosity will not override his good manners. He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backward a few steps, thinking, Yes, the barn is still there, yes, the lilacs, even the pot of petunias. This was my father’s house. And I will think. He is young. He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment. (324–325)

Like Lila – and like Ames himself – Glory imagines a form of reunion between a father and his son. While Lila pictures an actual, if posthumous, reunion between the boy and the father he murdered, Robert’s return to Gilead, as envisioned by Glory, does not reunite him with Jack. Rather, it serves to confirm the stories Jack told him about his childhood home, kept intact by Glory’s housekeeping, and therefore forms a vindication of his father and a confirmation of Robert’s own ties to the Boughton home. As Shannon L. Mariotti notes, Glory’s fantasies of a conventional, middle-class home life for herself have fallen by the wayside: the man she thought was her fiancee turned out to be married, and she will have no married life in the ‘modest sunlit house’ (306) she once imagined.12 This is in fact the reason why she has returned, like Jack, to her parental home. Likewise,

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


the domestic reconciliation between Jack and his father has failed to transpire. In her reverie on Robert’s return to Gilead, Glory’s understanding of ‘home’ takes on a political dimension, with the Boughton home to which she now tends as a metonymy for a Gilead newly committed to racial justice. Indeed, the passage echoes the final pages of Gilead, when Ames blesses Jack and feels that his entire life as a minister has worked towards this moment. Like other moments in the Gilead novels, Glory’s reverie turns on the relation between forgiveness and politics. This becomes clear when, in the same passage, she reflects on Della’s forgivingness, as recounted by Jack: She has forgiven so much, he said. You can have no idea. And how would she forgive this, that she felt she had to come into Gilead as if it were a foreign and a hostile country? Did anyone know otherwise? Worn, modest, countrified Gilead, Gilead of the sunflowers. (324)

While Jack has told Glory about Della’s forgiveness of Jack’s personal failings, Glory wonders about the more systemic, political injustice that has made America and even Gilead into a foreign and hostile place, rather than a home, for Della. Glory also evokes Gilead’s rather different political past that now seems forgotten. In imagining the return of Jack’s son to Gilead, therefore, she also envisions a re-awakening of Gilead’s abolitionist past and a fulfilment of the promise which it held. Robert’s imagined return to Gilead signals a domestic as well as a political vindication for Jack. Lila likewise imagines for Jack a reunion with his son and an escape from racial oppression which eludes him in real life. Robinson does not present this as actually taking place in the afterlife. Rather, Lila’s reflections on heaven, the climax of the Gilead novels, register a longing for socio-political justice – and with that for a forgiveness without power – that remains beyond reach in this world, just as the return of Jack’s son to Gilead takes place in a future imagined by Glory.13 ***

In a seminal study of the collective memory of the American Civil War, David Blight has argued that during the half-century after the war, the issue of racial justice was sacrificed on the altar of reconciliation and national union. Commemorative activities to mark the semicentennial of the war cemented a narrative of post-war reconciliation and healing constructed during the preceding fifty years. On this view, Blight writes, the Civil War was a crisis


A Literary History of Reconciliation

from which the nation had eventually emerged united: ‘a necessary sacrifice, a noble mutual experience that in the long run solidified the nation’.14 While the urge to reconcile after the carnage of the Civil War is of course understandable, such a reconciliationist vision elided the significance of slavery as the core issue over which that war was fought, and could not accommodate the reality of virulent racism in post–Civil War America or the violent backlash against Reconstitution in southern states. Indeed, reconciliationist readings of the war were premised in part on an idea of moral equivalence between the opposing parties. Both Confederates and Unionists were seen as having fought nobly for their own, comparable and ultimately compatible conceptions of liberty. As one commentator in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had it: Two civilizations met at Gettysburg and fought out the issue between them under the broad blue sky, in noble, honorable battle[.] [In one] the family was the social unit – the family in the old Roman sense, possibly inclusive of hundreds of slaves. In the other, the individual was the only social unit. Within half a century those two civilizations have become one.15

Commenting on reconciliationist visions of the Civil War in an 1875 speech on ‘The Color Question’, Frederick Douglass, a former slave and prominent abolitionist, asked ‘in what position will this stupendous reconciliation leave the colored people?’.16 The Gilead novels resonate with Douglass’s question, perhaps most explicitly in grandfather Ames’s insistence, quoted earlier in this chapter, that ‘while there was slavery there was no peace’. While the Gilead novels do not directly address the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, they do examine its long-term memory. More specifically, they explore the ways in which the language of reconciliation and forgiveness enables a forgetting of the emancipationist dimension of the Civil War. In smoothing out the issues over which conflict emerged, the lexicon of forgiveness – and in Robinson, this lexicon is intensely theological – creates a semblance of harmony that ultimately serves only reactionary interests. For the Brooklyn Daily Eagle commentator, as we have seen, the Confederate cause revolved around patriarchal family values. His assessment recalls both the patriarchal reconciliation discourses encountered in earlier chapters of this study and the patriarchal forgiveness scenarios in the Gilead novels. Robert Boughton, the central patriarch in these novels, speaks a language of forgiveness that celebrates reconciliation in the familial sphere while simultaneously smoothing over – and effectively forgiving – the reality of racial injustice. Indeed, he casts those who protest against racist violence as disturbers of social peace. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle similarly evokes the patriarchal family

Forgiveness, Theology and Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels


as a site of harmony, a tight-knit social unit that welcomes slaves into its fold (even though slavery’s disregard for slave families was, of course, brutal and absolute). In an article on the process of writing Gilead, Robinson comments on the religiously inspired political activism that emerged on the prairies of nineteenthcentury Iowa, lamenting that this legacy was ‘largely forgotten’ in later eras. She ends with the remark that ‘the prairie still shines like transfiguration’: Iowa still holds the promise of visionary political change.17 The phrase resonates with the visions of grandfather Ames, visited by Christ as an embodiment of oppressed humanity. The Gilead novels do ultimately ask us to see political activism as a necessary component of religion, and, conversely, to understand how religion can be an important breeding ground for a commitment to political justice. Indeed, the sanctity of the human person to which Ames repeatedly refers has radical political implications beyond what he himself, at least initially, envisions. Robinson’s comment on the radiant transfiguration of the prairie is echoed in Ames’s rapturous description at the end of Gilead: I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (246)

Ames’s sense of the numinous in nature and in everyday experience, evident throughout Gilead, here takes on a further, political significance. To see the radiance of the prairie is also to acknowledge the political transformation which it once witnessed and which it may once again engender. It also entails a commitment to a politically transformative theology of forgiveness. In the Gilead novels, such forgiveness is attained only in visions – of a future, ‘brave’ America in which Ames’s son Robby will grow up to be a ‘brave man’ or of an afterlife in which the injustices of this world have been transcended.

Notes Chapter 1 David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 387, my italics. 2 Olivier Abel, ‘Tables du pardon’, in Le pardon, briser la dette et l’oubli (Paris: Autrement, 1991), http://olivierabel.fr/ethique-et-politique/le-pardon-briser-la -dette-et-l-oubli.php. The translation is by Richard Hughes Gibson, Forgiveness in Victorian Literature (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 1. 3 Four examples on which I have gratefully drawn for this book are Sarah Beckwith, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Gibson, Forgiveness in Victorian Literature; Julie McGonegal, Imagining Justice: The Politics of Postcolonial Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2009); and Jill Scott, A Poetics of Forgiveness: Cultural Responses to Loss and Wrongdoing (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). 4 OED, s.v. ‘reconciliation’, 1a. 5 For a detailed account of the forgiveness model outlined in this paragraph, see Charles Griswold, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007). For the predominance of forgiveness as a way of doing reconciliation in modern-day culture, see also David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York: Routledge, 2001), 25–60, which comments on the ‘proliferation of scenes of repentance’ (28) in the late twentieth-century political sphere. 6 For this point, see also Laurel Fulkerson, No Regrets: Remorse in Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 16. ‘Regret’ can usefully be seen as remorse without guilt, and therefore as amoral, expressing merely a wish that things were otherwise. 7 See Konstan, Before Forgiveness, 26–27, 41–42. 8 Ibid., 25. 9 Ibid., 73. 10 Fulkerson, No Regrets, 6. 11 ‘Contrition’, Catholic Encyclopedia. 12 Thomas of Aquinas, Summa Theologica, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/, Supplement, Question 5, Article 2. 1



13 Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 122. 14 For a detailed discussion of this doctrine, see McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 107–117. For the doctrine of facere quod in se est specifically in Biel, see Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 132–141. 15 Martha C. Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 68, 90. The translation is Nussbaum’s. 16 Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness, 68. 17 See Chapter 2 for a more detailed discussion of this moment in relation to Paradise Lost. 18 Leah Whittington, Renaissance Suppliants: Poetry, Antiquity, Reconciliation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 16. 19 Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness, 89. 20 OED, s.v. ‘commination’, 2. 21 Michael C. Schoenfeldt, ‘The Poetry of Supplication: Toward a Cultural Poetics of the Religious Lyric’, in New Perspectives on the Seventeenth-Century English Religious Lyric, ed. John R. Roberts (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994), 75–104. 22 Cynthia Garrett, ‘The Rhetoric of Supplication: Prayer Theory in SeventeenthCentury England’, Renaissance Quarterly 46, no. 2 (1993): 352. 23 The role of unmerited grace in divine forgiveness was stressed more strongly, of course, by Reformation theologians, who came to see grace as a radically one-sided gift, and stressed the soteriological irrelevance of human actions. While I do not wish to downplay the importance of this shift, my interest in this brief outline is in the long-term continuities in forgiveness theology, especially in the abiding tension between conditionality and grace. As the quotations from the Book of Common Prayer suggest, understandings of divine forgiveness as conditional on human actions such as contrition and self-humiliation are not absent from Reformation discourses. 24 McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 147. 25 Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness, 81. 26 This reading is contradicted, unconvincingly in my view, by Anthony Bash, who argues that ‘the father was ready and willing to forgive his son but could not and did not do so until his son repented and came home to express that repentance’ (‘Forgiveness: A Re-appraisal’, Studies in Christian Ethics 24, no. 2 [2011]: 138). 27 Italics added. In Luther’s 1522 translation of the New Testament, the father does not include himself in the joy, instead commanding his complaining son that ‘du soltist aber frolich und guttes mutts seyn’ (you should be merry and of good cheer). 28 The etching is less famous than Rembrandt’s later oil painting (c. 1668) depicting the same scene, now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.



29 Susan Donahue Kuretsky, ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son and Rembrandt’s Creative Process’, Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies 27 (2007): 26. 30 Anthony Bash, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 29. 31 A comprehensive discussion of the extensive literature on political forgiveness would require a book in itself. I have found the following studies to be particularly useful: P. E. Digeser, Political Forgiveness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); Andrew Schaap, Political Reconciliation (New York: Routledge, 2005); Bash, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics; Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. 32 Digeser, Political Forgiveness, 21. 33 Ibid., 33. 34 McGonegal, Imagining Justice, 34. 35 Digeser, Political Forgiveness, 56–57. 36 See also Schaap, Political Reconciliation, 134–136; and Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness, 238–239. 37 Judith Pollmann, Memory in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 141. 38 Digeser, Political Forgiveness, 72. 39 Ross Poole, ‘Enacting Oblivion’, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 22, no. 2 (2009): 152. 40 See for example Aryeh Neier, ‘What Should Be Done about the Guilty?’, in Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes. Vol. 1: General Considerations, ed. Neil Kritz (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995), 172–184. 41 Ralf K. Wüstenburg, Die politische Dimension der Versöhnung: Eine theologische Studie zum Umgang mit Schuld nach den Systemumbrüchen in Südafrika und Deutschland (Gütersloh: Kaiser / Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2004), 165; see also 577–579. 42 Quoted in Wüstenburg, Politische Dimension, 167. 43 Quoted in ibid. 44 Derrida, Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 32. 45 Ibid., 32, 49, 39, 44, 45. 46 Ibid., 59. 47 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 132. 48 Bash, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics, 24. 49 Digeser, Political Forgiveness, 15; Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 39. Mirabeau is short for Honoré G. de Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau (1749–91). 50 See also Scott, Poetics of Forgiveness, 28. 51 Bash, ‘Forgiveness: A Re-appraisal’, 141.



52 Virgilio Elizondo, ‘I Forgive but I Do not Forget’, in Beyond Borders: Writings of Virgilio Elizondo and Friends, ed. Timothy Matovina (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 210. 53 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 237.

Chapter 2 1 Examples of work specifically on early modern reconciliation are Melanie Harrington, ‘Transitional Justice Theory and Reconciling Civil War Division in English Society, circa 1660–1670’, in Civilians and War in Europe, 1618–1815, eds Erica M. Charters, Eve Rosenhaft and Hannah Smith (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012); Freya Sierhuis, ‘Controversy and Reconciliation: Vondel, Grotius, and the Debate on Religious Peace’, in Forgetting Faith? Negotiating Confessional Conflict in Early Modern Europe, eds Isabel Karremann, Inga-Mai Groote and Cornel Zwierlein (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012); Els Stronks, Negotiating Differences: Word, Image and Religion in the Dutch Republic (Leiden: Brill, 2011), which analyses the nature of peaceful religious coexistence in the Dutch Republic by focusing on illustrated religious literature. 2 William Cobbett, Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, vol. 4 (London: R. Bagshaw, 1808), 89. 3 John Raithby (ed.), ‘Charles II, 1660: An Act of Free and General Pardon Indemnity and Oblivion’, Statutes of the Realm, vol. 5: 1628–1680 (1819), British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=47259. Such oblivion was, of course, inevitably partial. In spite of Charles II’s call to collective forgetting, an Act of Attainder, also passed in 1660, ordered that the date of the regicide be observed as a day of fasting and humiliation (Thomas P. Anderson, Performing Early Modern Trauma from Shakespeare to Milton [Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006], 177). 4 C. H. Firth and R. S. Rait (eds), Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum 1642–60, 2 vols (London: HM Stationery Office, 1911), vol. 2, 566. See also ‘Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum’, British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/ no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum. 5 Andrew Shifflett, ‘Kings, Poets, and the Power of Forgiveness, 1642–1660’, English Literary Renaissance 33, no. 1 (2003): 88–109. 6 Edward Hyde, ‘Earl of Clarendon’, in History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, ed. W. Dunn Macray, 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), vol. 2, 5, quoted in Shifflett, ‘Kings, Poets, and the Power of Forgiveness’, 92. 7 Firth and Rait, Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum 1642–60, vol. 2, 566. 8 Prime Minister Harper, ‘Statement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools’, www.canada.ca/en/news/archive/2008/06/prime-ministerharper-offers-full-apology-behalf-canadians-indian-residential-schools-system.html.



Stuart Curran, ‘God’, in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, eds Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 531. 10 David Quint, Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), 198. 11 Eric Song argues that Paradise Lost ‘questions the political value of literal and metaphorical marriages by returning to marriage’s divine foundations’. I argue for a different interpretation here, where the origins of forgiveness within divine marriage cannot be disaggregated from their political implications (Eric B. Song, ‘Love against Substitution: John Milton, Aphra Behn and the Political Theology of Conjugal Narratives’, ELH 80, no. 3 [Fall 2013]: 682). 12 Diane K. McColley sees Eve as ‘the leader in peacemaking after the Fall’ (‘Milton and the Sexes’, in The Cambridge Companion to Milton, ed. Dennis Danielson [Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 189). 13 Philip J. Gallagher, Milton, the Bible, and Misogyny (Columbia, MO, and London: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 96–114. See also Karen L. Edwards, ‘Gender, Sex and Marriage in Paradise Lost’, in A Concise Companion to Milton, ed. Angelica Duran (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 144–161. 14 The locus classicus is perhaps Joseph H. Summers, The Muse’s Method: An Introduction to Paradise Lost (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 183; for a more recent view, see Daniel W. Doerksen, ‘“Let There Be Peace”: Eve as Redemptive Peacemaker in Paradise Lost, Book X’, Milton Quarterly 31, no. 4 (1997): 124–130. 15 The analogy is necessarily partial since in the case of Adam and Eve’s repentance before God, it is in fact God himself who makes them capable of repentance in the first place: ‘from the Mercie-seat above / Prevenient Grace descending had remov’d / The stonie from thir hearts’ (11.2–4). 16 See also Wendy R. Olmsted, The Imperfect Friend: Emotion and Rhetoric in Sidney, Milton, and Their Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 205–207. For supplication in classical epic, see Kevin Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1994). Whittington, Renaissance Suppliants offers a book-length analysis of supplication, and its relation to classical supplication, in Renaissance poetry. 17 Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication, 14. 18 Whittington, Renaissance Suppliants, 15. 19 As Whittington writes, ‘the suppliant places himself entirely in the power of the respondent’, and supplication involves an ‘abdication of status on the part of the suppliant and corresponding elevation of the respondent’ (ibid., 16). 20 Geoffrey Koziol, Begging Pardon and Favor: Ritual and Political Order in Early Medieval France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 19. 21 K. J. Kesselring, Mercy and Authority in the Tudor State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 134. The Oxford English Dictionary lists ‘the action of 9



addressing a solemn request to God (or a god); prayer’ and ‘a formal, usually written, petition made to a king, official, court’ as two meanings of ‘supplication’ (OED, s.v. ‘supplication’, 2a; 4a) current between 1500 and 1700. 22 To the Kings Most Excellent Majesty, and the Lords and Commons assembled in this present Parliament (London, 1661). 23 George Willington, The thrice welcome, and happy inauguration of our most gracious, and religious sovereign, King Charles II. To the crown and kingdoms of Great-Brittain and Ireland. Containing, in the first place, the authors most humble supplication to the King’s most excellent Majesty, in order to the reformation of religion, in six particulars. In the second part, the subjects duty to their sovereign, in sundry heads, and divers particulars very usefull for these times: together with a recommendation of the work to the Kings Majesties subjects (London, 1660), 6. 24 Henry Valentine, Private devotions digested into six litanies; I. Of confession. II. Of deprecation. III. Of supplication. IV. Of Thanksgiving. V. Of intercession. VI. For the sick. With directions and prayers for the Lords day. Sacrament. Day of Death. Judgment. And two daily prayers. One for the morning. Another for the evening (London, 1679). Early moderns also thought of prayer itself as a form of subjection to God. For (Robert Harris, the purpose of prayer was ‘to acknowledge our dependancie and his soveraigntie’ (Robert Harris, Peters enlargement upon the prayers of the Church [London, 1627], 31, quoted in Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013], 120). 25 Edward Phillips, The Life of Mr. John Milton, John Milton, The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston, MA and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 24. 26 Annabel Patterson, ‘Say First, What Cause? The Origins of Paradise Lost’, in The Oxford Handbook of Literature and the English Revolution, ed. Laura Lunger Knoppers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 631. 27 Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns. John Milton: Life, Work and Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 168. 28 For Phillips’s royalist leanings, see Flannagan, The Riverside Milton, 18. 29 Konstan, Before Forgiveness, 157. 30 Ibid., 164. 31 Katherine Hodgkin (ed.), Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings of Dionys Fitzherbert (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 50. 32 Ibid., 50. 33 See for example the essays collected in Miriam Eliav-Feldon and Tamar Herzig (eds), Dissimulation and Deceit in Early Modern Europe (London: Palgrave, 2015). 34 Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 13. 35 Tyler F. Stillman, ‘Supplication’, in Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, eds Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007), 960.



36 Whittington, Renaissance Suppliants, 188. 37 Mandy Green, Milton’s Ovidian Eve (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 200–201.

Chapter 3 For a recent study of reconciliation in the late plays, see Beckwith, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness. For reconciliation in Shakespearean comedy, see Michael D. Friedman, The World Must Be Peopled: Shakespeare’s Comedies of Forgiveness (Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002) and Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), although Hunter uses the term ‘comedy of forgiveness’ to refer to any Shakespeare play that culminates in forgiveness, and devotes much space to the four late plays. 2 OED, s.v. ‘grace’, I.1.a. 3 Alex Schulman, Rethinking Shakespeare’s Political Philosophy: From Lear to Leviathan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 192. 4 For this reading of pardoning in the play, see also J. M. Spencer, ‘Staging Pardon Scenes: Variations of Tragicomedy’, Renaissance Drama 21 (1990): 55–89; A. L. Jr. Little, ‘Absolute Bodies, Absolute Laws: Staging Punishment in Measure for Measure’, in Shakespearean Power and Punishment: A Volume of Essays, ed. G. Murray Kendall (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998), 89–112. 5 The theological term for such inadequate, self-directed remorse is ‘attrition’: ‘Repentance or sorrow for sin, falling short of contrition in being inspired by a worldly motive, such as fear of punishment, rather than proceeding from the love of God’ (OED, s.v. ‘attrition’, 1). 6 For the classic account of such power, see of course Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977). 7 For modern stagings of this moment, see for example Angela Stock’s overview in the edition by Gibbons (68–84). 8 Beckwith, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness, 75. 9 G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Routledge, 2001), 196, 197. 10 The moment echoes the mutual forgiveness between Hamlet and Laertes in Act 5, Scene 2 of Hamlet: ‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. / Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, / Nor thine on me’ (5.2.336–38), to which Hamlet responds: ‘Heaven make thee free of it. I follow thee.–’ (5.2.339). Earlier in the scene, Laertes had rejected Hamlet’s request for pardon: ‘in my terms of honour / I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement’ (5.2.245–46). Like Edmund, Laertes 1



offers aristocratic, gentlemanly forgiveness (‘noble Hamlet’), while Hamlet leaves the forgiveness of Laertes to heaven. 11 For this point, see also L. Kordecki and K. Koskinen, Re-Visioning Lear’s Daughters: Testing Feminist Criticism and Theory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 118. 12 For Cordelia as akin to the loving father in this parable, see also Susan Snyder, ‘King Lear and the Prodigal Son’, Shakespeare Quarterly 17, no. 4 (Autumn 1966): 363–365. 13 John Hughes, ‘The Politics of Forgiveness: A Theological Exploration of King Lear’, Modern Theology 17, no. 3 (July 2001): 277. 14 Ibid.: 277. 15 Commenting on Henry VI’s response to the death of Winchester in Henry VI Part 2, Agnes Heller makes a similar observation: ‘Radical goodness in Shakespeare has nothing to do with justice. The radically good is the one who forgives the unforgivable’ (The Time Is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History [Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 155]. For the relation between Cordelia’s forgiveness of Lear and the Protestant doctrine of unmerited grace, see also Richard Strier, ‘Shakespeare and the Skeptics’, Religion and Literature 32 (2000): 188–189. 16 For a classic account of the latter two ideologies in King Lear, see Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 195–202. 17 Hughes, ‘Politics of Forgiveness’, 277. 18 Ibid. 19 Richard Strier convincingly likens Cordelia’s act of forgiveness to the unmerited grace offered to the speaker in George Herbert’s ‘Love (III)’ (‘Shakespeare and the Skeptics’, 188). 20 The most powerful suggestion (and it is only a suggestion) that Hermione does indeed die, and is therefore genuinely resurrected at the end of the play, occurs in Act 3, Scene 3, when Antigonus recounts a dream in which Hermione appears to him. Antigonus insists that ‘ne’er was dream / So like a waking’ (3.3.18–19) and confesses that ‘I will be squared by this. I do believe / Hermione hath suffer’d death’ (3.3.41–42). 21 Arendt, The Human Condition, 237. 22 William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, ed. Frances E. Dolan (New York: Penguin, 2017), xli. 23 William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, ed. John Pitcher (London: A and C Black, 2010), 6. 24 Cf. Sarah Beckwith’s claim that ‘the discourse on forgiveness in The Winter’s Tale makes it clear that it must come, like grace, through the very medium of religious theater’ (Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness, 140).



25 For the relation between faith and drama in Shakespeare more broadly, see Richard C. McCoy, Faith in Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). I am indebted to McCoy’s understanding of ‘faith’ in Shakespeare’s work as ‘more theatrical and poetic than spiritual’ (ix); as revolving around faith in the very dramatic illusion which we know to be illusory. 26 See Arendt, The Human Condition, 237, 243. Auden suggests that forgiveness might instead be an internal state – a transformation in a victim’s inner disposition that does not require, and might be compromised by, explicit expression. He rearticulates this view in his essay ‘The Fallen City’, in which he argues that ‘the spirit of forgiveness’, as an inward disposition, is betrayed in a play performance since ‘on the stage, forgiveness requires manifestation in action’ (28). 27 Julia Reinhard Lupton, ‘Judging Forgiveness: Hannah Arendt, W. H. Auden, and The Winter’s Tale’, New Literary History 45, no. 4 (2014): 649. 28 OED, s.v. ‘interpose’, 4; the line is quoted as an example of ‘interpose’ used in this sense. 29 Lupton, ‘Judging Forgiveness’, 655. 30 Gregory Currie, ‘Agency and Repentance in The Winter’s Tale’, in Shakespeare and Moral Agency, ed. Michael Bristol (London: Continuum, 2010), 172, 180. 31 Ibid. 181. 32 Lupton, ‘Judging Forgiveness’, 655. 33 For analyses of this moment, see Beckwith, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness, 148–150; Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2012), 240–242. 34 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 143. 35 See for example the Arden Third Series edition of The Tempest, eds Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2011), 263n107. 36 OED, s.v. ‘remord, v’, Etymology. Cf. the Middle English phrase ‘agenbite of inwit’, discussed in more detail in the analysis of Ulysses in Chapter 5. 37 Shakespeare, The Tempest, eds Mason Vaughan and Vaughan, 298n198. 38 Edward Dowden, Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 410. 39 ‘Remorse’ in line 81 is often glossed as meaning ‘pity’, yet there is no reason why it cannot also mean, in this context, ‘deep regret or guilt for doing something morally wrong; the fact or state of feeling sorrow for committing a sin; repentance, compunction’ (OED, s.v. ‘remorse’, 2a). 40 Beckwith, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness, 168. 41 For this last point, see also Paul Brown’s influential essay ‘“This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism’, in Political



Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, eds Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 68. 42 See for example the edition by Vaughan and Vaughan, 305n296. 43 Deborah Willis, ‘Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 29, no. 2 (April 1989): 285.

Chapter 4 1 Gibson, Forgiveness in Victorian Literature. 2 Hillis Miller, For Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), 17. 3 Gibson, Forgiveness in Victorian Literature, 132. 4 These figures are based on the third 1741 edition (Pamela: or, virtue rewarded. In a series of familiar letters from a beautiful young damsel, to her parents. Now first Published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes. In two volumes. The third edition [London, 1741]). 5 John A Dussinger, ‘“Ciceronian Eloquence”: The Politics of Virtue in Richardson’s Pamela’, in Passion and Virtue: Essays on the Novels of Samuel Richardson, ed. David Blewett (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 31. 6 The OED lists ‘To move timidly or diffidently; to proceed humbly, abjectly, or servilely, to cringe’ as one meaning of ‘to creep’ (OED, s.v. ‘creep, v’, 3b). 7 Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 361. 8 William B. Warner, ‘Novels on the Market’, in The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780, ed. John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 100. 9 Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2007), 48. 10 Quoted in Jocelyn Harris, Samuel Richardson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 29. 11 Richardson, Pamela, 536n447. 12 Harris, Samuel Richardson, 33. 13 Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, eds Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 900–912. 14 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. L. G. Mitchell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 76. 15 This is true, at least, for the published version of Caleb Williams. In the original, manuscript ending, by contrast, as Vijay Mishra notes, ‘there is no confession, let alone any hope of reconciliation’ (Vijay Mishra, The Gothic Sublime [Albany, NY: State



University of New York Press, 1994], 119). A full discussion of the differences between the two endings, and of their consequences for my argument, is beyond the scope of this chapter, but the published ending sheds more light than does the original manuscript on the politically fraught nature of reconciliation in Godwin’s novel. Indeed, in closing off the very possibility of reconciliation between Falkland and Caleb, the manuscript ending in fact diverts our attention from the role which concepts of forgiveness and remorse play in maintaining the social order which Caleb Williams portrays. 16 Gary Handwerk, ‘Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb “Williams”’, ELH 60, no. 4 (Winter, 1993): 948. For the analysis of Caleb Williams presented in this chapter, I am indebted to Handwerk’s argument. 17 Handwerk, ‘Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth’, 949. 18 ‘Compunction’ is a synonym of remorse, and has a similar etymology, rooted as it in the Latin compungo (‘to prick or puncture severely, to sting’). The OED defines ‘compunction’ as follows: ‘Pricking or stinging of the conscience or heart; regret or uneasiness of mind consequent on sin or wrong-doing; remorse, contrition’ (OED, s.v. ‘compunction’, 1a). 19 Kenneth W. Graham, ‘Narrative and Ideology in Godwin’s Caleb Williams’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction 2, no. 3 (April 1990): 222. 20 For a discussion of this scene, see chapter 3. For the intertextual relation between Dombey and Son and King Lear more broadly, see Alexander Welsh, From Copyright to Copperfield: The Identity of Dickens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), which describes Dickens’s novel as a ‘concerted imitation of Shakespeare’s King Lear’ (13). 21 Gibson, Forgiveness in Victorian Literature, 71. 22 Lisa Surridge, Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005), 61. For the reading of Dombey and Son presented here, I am indebted to Surridge’s chapter on ‘Domestic Violence and Middle-Class Manliness: Dombey and Son’ (44–71). 23 Catherine Waters, ‘Gender, Family, and Domestic Ideology’, in The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. John O. Jordan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 122. For an illuminating book-length analysis of this topic, see Catherine Waters, Dickens and the Politics of the Family (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). 24 Waters, Dickens and the Politics of the Family, 49. 25 Ibid., 43, 56. 26 Patricia Ingham, ‘The Language of Dickens’, in A Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. David Paroissien (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 140. 27 Surridge, Bleak Houses, 65. 28 J. Hillis Miller, ‘Moments of Decision in Bleak House’, in The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. John O. Jordan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 58.



29 For this point, see also Jan-Melissa Schramm, Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 227–228. 30 Rowan Williams, ‘Address at the Wreathlaying Ceremony to Mark the Bicentenary of the Birth of Charles Dickens, Westminster Abbey, 7 February 2012’, Dickens Quarterly 29, no. 2 (June 2012): 115. 31 Monica M. Young-Zook, ‘Buried Secrets: Lost Fathers in Bleak House’, in Fathers in Victorian Fiction, ed. Natalie McKnight (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 142. 32 Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 83–84. 33 Ibid., 84. 34 Ibid.

Chapter 5 1 Gabrielle McIntire, ‘Feminism and Gender in To the Lighthouse’, in The Cambridge Companion to To the Lighthouse, ed. Allison Pease (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 85. 2 William A. Johnsen, Violence and Modernism: Ibsen, Joyce, and Woolf (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 130. 3 William Cowper, ‘The Castaway’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), ll. 64–66, 2897. 4 Judith Woolf, ‘Silent Witness: Memory and Omission in Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings’, in Women’s Lives / Women’s Times: New Essays on Auto / Biography, eds Trev Lynn Broughton and Linda Anderson (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), 221. 5 McIntire, ‘Feminism and Gender in To the Lighthouse’, 90. 6 Margaret M. Jensen, The Open Book: Creative Misreading in the Works of Selected Modern Writers (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2002), 193. 7 Galya Diment, The Autobiographical Novel of Co-Consciousness: Goncharov, Woolf, and Joyce (Gainesville, FL: The University Press of Florida, 1994), 95. 8 Paul Sheehan, ‘Time as Protagonist in To the Lighthouse’, in The Cambridge Companion to To the Lighthouse, ed. Pease, 57. 9 As Gabrielle McIntire notes, ‘Lily Briscoe, focused on her painting rather than on men or domesticity, and unmarried at thirty-three, and still at forty-four at the novel’s close, offers a glimpse of newer roles for women’ (McIntire, ‘Feminism and Gender in To the Lighthouse’, 81). 10 In Elizabeth Abel’s words, Lily’s painting represents ‘the triumph of an impersonal aesthetic over the impersonal passage of time’ (Elizabeth Abel, ‘Spaces of Time:



Virginia Woolf ’s Life-Writing’, in Modernism and Autobiography, eds Maria DiBattista and Emily O. Wittman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 56). 11 Sheehan, ‘Time as Protagonist in To the Lighthouse’, 55. 12 Kelly Elizabeth Sultzbach, Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 130. 13 Ibid., 130. 14 Cyril Connolly, ‘The Position of Joyce’, in The Condemned Playground (London: Routledge, 1945), 1–15, 3. The essay originally appeared in the April 1929 issue of Life and Letters. 15 Fritz Senn, ‘Joyce’s Internal Translations’, in Parallaxes: Virginia Woolf Meets James Joyce, eds Marco Canani and Sara Sullam (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 143. ‘Inwit’ in fact has a counterpart in the modern German Gewissen and Dutch geweten, both meaning ‘conscience’. 16 Cf. Cyril Connolly, who claims that ‘Stephen dwells in the consciousness of having hastened his mother’s death by his atheism’ (3). 17 Fulkerson, No Regrets, 21. 18 Robert Scholes, Paradoxy of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 131. 19 For the various associations between drowning and guilt in Ulysses, see Melissa Edmundson, ‘“Love’s Bitter Mystery”: Stephen Dedalus, Drowning, and the Burden of Guilt in Ulysses’, English Studies 90, no. 5 (October 2009): 445–556. 20 John S. Rickard, Joyce’s Book of Memory: The Mnemotechnic of Ulysses (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 165. 21 Nathan Wallace ‘Shakespeare Biography and the Theory of Reconciliation in Edward Dowden and James Joyce’, ELH 72, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 799–822. In writing these paragraphs, I am indebted to Wallace’s argument. Dowden was in turn influenced by Frederick James Furnivall’s introduction to the English edition of the Shakespeare Commentaries (1875) by Georg Gottfried Gervinus. The first to reject Dowden’s reading of the late plays was Lytton Strachey, in an essay on ‘Shakespeare’s Final Period’ (see Gordon McMullan, Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007], 162). 22 Dowden, Shakespeare, 395. 23 Ibid., 412. 24 Ibid., 410. 25 Ibid., 413. 26 Ibid. 27 Ibid., 420. 28 Wallace, ‘Shakespeare Biography and the Theory of Reconciliation’, 806.



29 Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 250. 30 ‘Old Uncle Ned’, quoted from Stephen Railton, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture, utc.iath.virginia.edu/minstrel/ounedfr.html. 31 See for example, Gifford and Seidman, Ulysses Annotated, 236. 32 For this point, see also Rickard, Joyce’s Book of Memory, 39–40. 33 Margot Norris, ‘Character, Plot, and Myth’, in The Cambridge Companion to Ulysses, ed. Sean Latham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 75. 34 Maud Ellmann, ‘James Joyce’, in Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Auden, Beckett: Great Shakespeareans, ed. Adrian Poole (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 29. 35 Stephen Sicari, ‘Rereading Ulysses: “Ithaca” and Modernist Allegory’, Twentieth Century Literature 43, no. 3 (Autumn 1997): 286. For this view, see also Sicari’s book-length study Joyce’s Modernist Allegory: Ulysses and the History of the Novel (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001). 36 Sicari, ‘Rereading Ulysses’, 286. 37 Emer Nolan, Joyce and Nationalism (London: Routledge, 1995), 101. 38 Sicari, ‘Rereading Ulysses’, 286. 39 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce: New and Revised Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 712. 40 Andrew Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 252–272. 41 Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge, 271.

Chapter 6 For this aspect of my reading of Atonement, I am indebted to Dominic Head’s comparable argument that Atonement ‘seems to raise’ the notion that ‘the novel has the capacity to achieve a unique form of moral philosophy, and particularly through its investigation of character, dilemma and moral agency; and that this capacity can and should be put to social uses […] only to dash it’ (Ian McEwan [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007], 163). 2 See for example Rosemarie Buikema, ‘Literature and the Production of Ambiguous Memory: Confession and Double Thoughts in Coetzee’s Disgrace’, European Journal of English Studies 10, no. 2 (August 2006): 187–197; and McGonegal, Imagining Justice, 147–178. 3 Paul Franssen, ‘Pollux in Coetzee’s Disgrace’, Notes and Queries 57, no. 2 (2010): 240–243. 4 Ovid. Fasti, trans. Sir James Frazer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), 5.699–700, 313. 1

216 5


7 8


10 11 12 13


Notes Lucy’s decision not to press charges against her rapists is possibly the most controversial aspect of Disgrace and has elicited a great deal of scholarly commentary. Elleke Boehmer rightly asks how we can ‘speak of atonement if it entails that women as ever assume the generic pose of suffering in silence’ (Elleke Boehmer, ‘Not Saying Sorry, Not Speaking Pain: Gender Implications in Disgrace’, Interventions 4, no. 3 [2002]: 350; see also the article by Boehmer quoted in footnote eight). While I agree that Lucy’s seeming acceptance of her rape is obviously troubling, I resist the notion that Disgrace frames silent female suffering, in any straightforward manner, as a prerequisite for a post-Apartheid future. Indeed, as I hope the analysis in this chapter shows, the novel repeatedly thematises the question of female silence, for example in the figure of Melanie, while it is also an issue to which Lurie, especially in the final chapters, becomes alert. The idea that Lucy ‘humble[s herself] before history’ (160), moreover, is voiced by Lurie and explicitly contradicted by Lucy herself. It is true that the gender politics of reconciliation are examined mainly through the figure of Lurie, and that Lucy’s own perspective largely remains outside the narrative limits of Disgrace, withheld from the reader. While this is vexing, it is also consistent with, and enacts on a formal level, the novel’s manifest concern with the limits of Lurie’s male perspective. David Attwell, ‘Race in Disgrace’, Interventions 4, no. 3 (2002), 338. Atwell convincingly shows that the rape in Disgrace is not presented primarily in racialized terms, arguing that ‘race is bleached out of the episode almost entirely’ (339). Attwell also offers a useful account of the censure which Disgrace has drawn for its bleak depiction of post-Apartheid South Africa; for this issue, see also McGonegal, Imagining Justice, 148. Attwell, ‘Race in Disgrace’, 339. Elleke Boehmer, ‘Sorry, Sorrier, Sorriest: The Gender of Contrition in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace’, in J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual, ed. Jane Poyner (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006), 135–136. For the analysis presented in this paragraph, I am indebted to Buikema, ‘Literature and the Production of Ambiguous Memory’, 190–192; and McGonegal, Imagining Justice, 162–166. J. M. Coetzee, ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’, Comparative Literature 37, no. 3 (Summer 1985): 194. Ibid., 194. Ibid., 230. Richard A. Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 109; Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (London: Random House, 2000), 48. Quoted in Wilson, Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, 101.



15 McGonegal, Imagining Justice, 153. 16 Ibid. 17 Boehmer, ‘Sorry, Sorrier, Sorriest’, 138. 18 See for example Derek Attridge, J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 185. 19 Ibid., 188. 20 P. Th. M. G. Liebregts, ‘Ubi amor, ibi oculus est’: Ethiek en literaire vorm in J.M. Coetzee (Leiden: University of Leiden, 2007), 13. 21 See also Pamela Cooper, ‘Metamorphosis and Sexuality: Reading the Strange Passions of Disgrace’, Research in African Literatures 36, no. 4 (Winter, 2005): 25. 22 Laurence Wright points to the many echoes of The Tempest in Disgrace (‘Disgrace as J. M. Coetzee’s Tempest’, in Renaissance Poetry and Drama in Context: Essays for Christopher Wortham, eds Andrew Lynch and Anne M. Scott [Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing, 2008], 303–316). In this context, it is worth noting that the passage quoted here is reminiscent of Caliban’s speech in Act 3, Scene 3: ‘Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices, / That if I then had waked after long sleep, / Will make me sleep again’ (3.2.138–41). 23 Attridge, J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, 183. 24 This synopsis follows the most commonly accepted reading of Atonement, which assumes the inaccuracy of Briony’s initial testimony. Yet it in fact remains unclear whether Robbie is indeed innocent, or even whether he and Cecilia die during the war. This is an issue discussed in more detail below. 25 On issues of class in Atonement, see also Ian Fraser, ‘Class Experience in McEwan’s Atonement’, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 54, no. 4 (October 2013): 465–477. 26 Brian Finney, English Fiction since 1984: Narrating a Nation (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2006), 90. 27 Natasha Alden, Reading behind the Lines: Postmemory in Contemporary British War Fiction (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 123. 28 Martin Jacobi, ‘Who Killed Robbie and Cecilia? Reading and Misreading Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52, no. 1 (2011): 64. 29 Huw Marsh, ‘Narrative Unreliability and Metarepresentation in Ian McEwan’s Atonement; or, Why Robbie Might Be Guilty and Why Nobody Seems to Notice’, Textual Practice 7 (January 2017): 1–19. 30 For this point, see also Kim L. Worthington, ‘Rethinking Narrative Identity: Person and Perspective’, in Rethinking Narrative Identity: Person and Perspective, eds Claudia Holler and Martin Klepper (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013), 161.



31 Philip Larkin, ‘The Trees’, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), 166. 32 The OED lists a ‘feeling or expressing remorse’ as one of the meanings of ‘sorry’ (OED, s.v. ‘sorry’, 3). 33 Worthington, ‘Rethinking Narrative Identity’, 162–163. 34 For a more elaborate discussion of this point, see Head, Ian McEwan, 156–176, esp. 168–172. 35 Briony does not connect these two moments, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between her view of Robbie as unforgivable on the one hand and her claim that forgiveness ‘had never meant a thing before’ on the other.

Chapter 7 1 Gilead, Home and Lila clearly form a unity, yet both Robinson herself and critics of her work have been wary of referring to them as a trilogy. The novels do not form a chronological sequence and are more usefully thought of as offering diverse, mutually complicating perspectives on one set of narrative materials. Gilead and Lila are narrated by John Ames and his wife Lila Dahl respectively, presenting two rather different accounts of their courtship, for example. Likewise, while Gilead offers Ames’s reading of the complex figure of Jack Boughton, Home is focalized through Jack’s sister Glory Boughton. Her understanding of Jack helps us to see, among other things, the blind spots in Ames’s account. In this sense, the Gilead novels are in part about individual perspectives and their limitations. 2 The full biblical verse reads: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things’ (American Standard Version). 3 Susan Petit, ‘Field of Deferred Dreams: Baseball and Historical Amnesia in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home’, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 37, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 129. 4 Ibid., 119. 5 Ibid., 122. 6 Jim Lane is the Union general, senator and abolitionist James Henry Lane (1814– 1866). 7 As Emily C. Nacol notes, ‘This passage in particular is resonant with the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, which take root in the face-to-face encounter between humans’ (‘“In Those Old Days”: The Old and the Aging in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home’, in A Political Companion to Marilynne Robinson, eds Shannon L. Mariotti and Joseph H. Lane Jr. [Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2016], 137). 8 The actual phrase which Grant used seems to have been ‘bright Radical star’; see Robert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 227.

Notes 9


The passage may well allude to Autherine Juanita Lucy, the first African American student to enrol in the University of Alabama, in 1956. 10 It is worth noting, in this context, that in an interview, Robinson comments that nineteenth-century abolitionists ‘tend to be stigmatized as violent because of old John Brown, but slavery was so violent that the fact that the stigma would fall on the abolitionists is just extraordinary’ (Mariotti and Lane, A Political Companion to Marilynne Robinson, 281). 11 42; Ezekiel 16:5 (American Standard Version). For this point, see also Sarah Churchwell, ‘Marilynne Robinson’s Lila – A Great Achievement in US Fiction’, The Guardian, 7 November 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/07/ marilynne-robinson-lila-great-achievement-contemporary-us-fiction-gilead. 12 Shannon L. Mariotti ‘The Housekeeper of Homelessness’, in A Political Companion to Marilynn Robinson, 44. 13 That reconciliation is possible only in the afterlife is also suggested when Ames, as a young boy, is taken to Kansas by his father, on a search for his grandfather’s grave. When they finally find it, overgrown and half hidden, they tend it as best they can and pray together: ‘my father bowed his head and began to pray, remembering his father to the Lord, and also asking the Lord’s pardon, and his father’s as well. I missed my grandfather mightily, and I felt the need of pardon, too’ (14). Never reconciled with his father in life, Ames’s father now prays for posthumous forgiveness both for and from his father. 14 Blight, Race and Reunion, 383. Aspects of Blight’s argument have been challenged by Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013). 15 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 July 1913. Quoted in Blight, Race and Reunion, 388–389. 16 Frederick Douglass, ‘The Color Question,’ speech delivered 5 July 1875, in Hillsdale, near Washington DC. Quoted in Blight, Race and Reunion, 134. 17 Marilynne Robinson, ‘Marilynne Robinson on Writing Gilead’, The Guardian, 11 May 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/11/guardian-bookclub -gilead-marilynne-robinson.

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Robinson, Marilynne. Lila (New York: Picador, 2014). Shakespeare, William. King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Methuen, 1997). Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale, ed. John Pitcher (London: A & C Black, 2010). Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, eds Ann Thompson, David Scott Kastan and Richard Proudfoot (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2011). Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, eds Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2011). Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale, ed. Frances E. Dolan (New York: Penguin, 2017). The book of common prayer, and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the Church of England (London, 1603). Thomas of Aquinas. Summa Theologica, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/. To the Kings Most Excellent Majesty, and the Lords and Commons assembled in this present Parliament. The most humble supplication of all those commission-officers, &c. that have faithfully and constantly served and suffered for your Majesty’s royal father of ever blessed memory, and your most sacred Majesty (London, 1661). Valentine, Henry. Private devotions digested into six litanies; I. Of confession. II. Of deprecation. III. Of supplication. IV. Of Thanksgiving. V. Of intercession. VI. For the sick. With directions and prayers for the Lords day. Sacrament. Day of Death. Judgment. And two daily prayers. One for the morning. Another for the evening (London, 1679). Willington, George. The thrice welcome, and happy inauguration of our most gracious, and religious sovereign, King Charles II. To the crown and kingdoms of Great-Brittain and Ireland. Containing, in the first place, the authors most humble supplication to the King’s most excellent Majesty, in order to the reformation of religion, in six particulars. In the second part, the subjects duty to their sovereign, in sundry heads, and divers particulars very usefull for these times: together with a recommendation of the work to the Kings Majesties subjects (London, 1660). Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse (London: The Hogarth Press, 1951).

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Index Abel, Elizabeth 213 n.10 Abel, Olivier 2 Alden, Natasha 170 American Civil War 1, 181, 188, 190, 199–201 Apartheid 3, 15–17, 21, 27, 151–2, 158, 163–4, 216 n.5, 216 n.6 Arendt, Hannah 21, 64, 67, 210 n.26 Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 5–6 Arnold, Matthew 164, 176 Attridge, Derek 162, 165 attrition 55, 208 n.5 Attwell, David 154, 216 n.6 Auden, W. H. 67, 210 n.26 Augustine of Hippo Confessions 6

Churchwell, Sarah 219 n.11 Coetzee, J. M. 2, 8, 18, 157–8 Disgrace 3, 21, 27, 28, 70, 151–67, 216 n.5 Connolly, Cyril 134, 214 n.16 contrition 9–12, 14–17, 22, 36, 45, 52, 54–5, 63, 65, 67, 70, 105, 135–6, 143, 152, 156, 159, 161, 203 n.23. See also forgiveness, and remorse Cooper, Pamela 217 n.21 Corns, Thomas N. 41 Cowper, William ‘The Castaway’ 129, 130 Cromwell, Oliver 31, 32, 148 Crotty, Kevin 38 Curran, Stuart 33 Currie, Gregory 67–8

Bash, Anthony 14, 21, 203 n.26, 204 n.31 Beckwith, Sarah 56, 73, 202 n.3, 208 n.1, 210 n.33 Benzien, Jeffrey 16 Beowulf 2 Biel, Gabriel 9, 203 n.14 Blight, David 1, 199 Boehmer, Elleke 154, 160, 216 n.5 Book of Common Prayer 10, 203 n.23 Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre 77–8 Brooklyn Daily Eagle 200 Brown, John 188, 189, 219 n.10 Brown, Paul 210 n.41 Buikema, Rosemarie 215 n.2, 216 n.9 Burke, Edmund Reflections on the Revolution in France 94 Butler, Judith 94 Byron, Lord 159

De Klerk, Frederik Willem 16–17 Derrida, Jacques 17–18, 20, 50, 58, 202 n.5 Dever, Carolyn 117 Dickens, Charles 2 Bleak House 8, 21, 24, 25, 69, 79, 110–21, 146 Dombey and Son 8, 24, 25, 79–81, 101–12, 118, 120, 121, 144, 146, 166, 173, 212 n.20 Great Expectations 77–8 Dies irae 10 Digeser, P. E. 14–16, 204 n.31 Diment, Galya 132 Doerksen, Daniel 206 n.14 Dolan, Frances 66 Dollimore, Jonathan 209 n.16 Donne, John 11 Dostoevsky, Fyodor 158 Douglass, Frederick 200 Dowden, Edward 70, 72, 139–41 Dussinger, John A. 83 Dykstra, Robert R. 218 n.8

Campbell, Gordon 41 Charles I of England 32, 33, 40 Charles II of England 16, 31, 32, 40, 41, 54, 205 n.3

Edmundson, Melissa 214 n.19 Edwards, Karen L. 206 n.13

Index Elizondo, Virgilio 21 Ellmann, Maud 145 Ellmann, Richard 142, 148 English Civil Wars. See Wars of the Three Kingdoms Fielding, Henry Tom Jones 7–8 Finden, William 37 Finney, Brian 170 First World War 26, 124, 133–4, 151 Flannagan, Roy 207 n.28 Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary 142 forgiveness. See also reconciliation Christ’s pronouncements on 6 definition of 4 divine forgiveness 9–14 and grace 11–14, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, 33, 44, 50, 59, 61, 62, 66, 74, 75, 76, 104, 140, 146, 173–4, 177, 182, 193, 203 n.23 and history 31, 2, 18, 26, 27, 28, 29, 124, 134, 147, 148, 151–4, 159, 163, 164, 167, 169, 175, 177, 181, 187, 189, 190, 194 interpersonal forgiveness 4–7 interpersonal reconciliation as modelled on divine forgiveness 4–10, 21, 31, 32 and literary history 2 in literature 2 (see also Brontë; Coetzee; Dickens; Hardy; Fielding; Godwin; Joyce; McEwan; Milton; Richardson; Robinson; Shakespeare; Woolf) political forgiveness 14–18, 21, 31–2 and power relations 1, 5, 9, 10, 18–21, 22–24, 32–5, 38–9, 44–7, 49–58, 62–3, 71, 73, 74, 79–85, 92–7, 100, 109–13, 121, 129, 140–1, 143, 148, 156, 162, 166, 178–9 and remorse 4–10, 12, 14–17, 19–20, 22, 23–7, 31–4, 36, 41, 42, 43–4, 49, 52–5, 62–76, 77–82, 86–8, 92–3, 96–109, 119–20, 123, 124, 134–9, 144–7, 152, 155–9, 161, 173, 174 and self-abasement 5, 9–12, 18, 20, 22, 25, 34–6, 38, 39, 41, 43, 45–6, 54, 58, 61, 88, 92, 103, 107, 109, 117, 136–8, 144, 146, 156, 161


and supplication 9–11, 20, 22, 38–41, 44–6, 53, 58, 60, 67, 72, 84, 85, 91, 92, 105, 107, 120, 136, 143–4, 146, 161 theologies of 9–11 Foster, Stephen 140 Foucault, Michel 208 n.6 Fowler, Bud 187 Franssen, Paul 153 Franzen, Jonathan Freedom 2 Fraser, Ian 217 n.25 Friedman, Michael D. 208 n.1 Fulkerson, Laurel 5, 136, 202 n.6 Furnivall, Frederick James 214 n.21 Gallagher, Philip 35 Garrett, Cynthia 203 n.22 Gervinus, Georg Gottfried 214 n.21 Gibson, Andrew 148 Gibson, Richard Hughes 77, 79, 104, 202 n.2, 202 n.3 Godwin, William Caleb Williams 8, 24, 25, 79, 81, 92–101, 102, 110, 211 n.15 Graham, Kenneth 101 Grant, Ulysses S. 190 Green, Mandy 46 Greenblatt, Stephen 71 Gregory of Rimini 11 Griswold, Charles 202 n.5 Guiccioli, Teresa 166 Handwerk, Gary 99 Hardy, Thomas Jude the Obscure 77 Harper, Stephen (Prime Minister of Canada) 32 Harrington, Melanie 205 n.1 Harris, Jocelyn 89 Hathaway, Anne 137, 145 Head, Dominic 215 n.1 Herbert, George 11 Hillis Miller, J. 78, 115, 118 Hodgkin, Katherine 42 Holcot, Robert 9 Homer Iliad 2, 5, 10, 38 Hughes, John 59, 61 Hunt, Lynn 87 Hunter, Robert Grams 208 n.1



Ingham, Patricia 109 Jacobi, Martin 171 James, Henry The Portrait of a Lady 78 Janney, Caroline E. 219 n.14 Jensen, Margaret 131 Joyce, James A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 135–8, 143, 144, 147, 151, 172 Ulysses 2, 25, 26, 123–4, 134–49 Kant, Immanuel Metaphysics of Morals 7 Kesselring, K. J. 39 Konstan, David 4–5, 7, 8, 42, 202 n.5 Kordecki, L. 209 n.11 Koskinen, K. 209 n.11 Koziol, Geoffrey 39 Kuretsky, Susan Donahue 204 n.29 Lane, Jim 188, 218 n.6 Larkin, Philip ‘The Trees’ 172–3 Leavis, F. R. 176 Levinas, Emmanuel 218 n.7 Liebregts, Peter 163 Lombard, Peter 9 London Magazine 88 Louis XVI of France 94 Lucy, Autherine Juanita 219 n.9 Luther, Martin 203 n.27 Malan, Wynand 159 Marie Antoinette 94 Mariotti, Shannon L. 198 Marsh, Huw 171 Maus, Katharine Eisaman 42 McColley, Diane K. 206 n.12 McCoy, Richard C. 210 n.25 McEwan, Ian 2, 18 Atonement 21, 27–8, 151–2, 167–79 McGonegal, Julie 15, 159, 202 n.3, 215 n.2, 216 n.6, 216 n.9 McGrath, Alister 203 n.13, 203 n.14 McIntire, Gabrielle 126, 213 n.9 McKeon, Michael 87 McMullan, Gordon 214 n.21 Menander Samia 5

Milton, John 2, 40–1 Paradise Lost 11, 22, 23, 33–47, 54, 58, 90, 103, 120, 144, 164 Mirabeau, Count of (Honoré G. de Riqueti) 19 Mishra, Vijay 211 n.15 Molière Les Fourberies de Scapin 7 Nacol, Emily C. 218 n.7 Nietzsche, Friedrich On the Genealogy of Morality 19 Nolan, Emer 148 Norris, Margot 142 Nussbaum, Martha 9, 10, 12, 45, 204 n.31, 204 n.36 O’Shea, Henry 143–4 O’Shea, Katherine 143–4 Oberman, Heiko 203 n.14 Olmsted, Wendy R. 206 n.16 Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) Fasti 153 Parnell, John Stewart 143 Patterson, Annabel 41 Petit, Susan 186–7 Phillips, Edward 40–1 Pitcher, John 66 Pollmann, Judith 16 Powell, Mary 40–1 Prodigal Son, parable of the 8, 11–14, 17, 20, 59, 120–1, 183, 184, 193 Quint, David 34 reconciliation. See also forgiveness definition of 3 as forgiveness 3, 4, 8 in literature 2, 8, 18–22 (see also Brontë; Coetzee; Dickens; Hardy; Fielding; Godwin; Joyce; McEwan; Milton; Richardson; Robinson; Shakespeare; Woolf) political reconciliation 14–18, 27, 31–3, 147, 149, 199–201 and power relations 18–21 Reinhard Lupton, Julia 67 Rembrandt van Rijn The Return of the Prodigal Son (1636) 13–14

Index remorse. See forgiveness Richardson, Samuel 2 Pamela 24, 79–92, 100, 105, 120 Rickard, John 139 Robinson, Marilynne 2, 8, 18, 201 Gilead 28, 29, 181–201 Home 8, 28, 29, 181–201 Lila 28, 29, 181–2, 195–8 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 158 Rumsfeld, Donald 43 Ryrie, Alec 207 n.24 Schaap, Andrew 204 n.31, 204 n.36 Schoenfeldt, Michael 11 Scholes, Robert 138 Schulman, Alex 51 Scott, Jill 202 n.3, 204 n.50 Second World War 27, 167–71 Senn, Fritz 135 Shakespeare, William 2, 8, 22, 47, 49, 137, 139–40, 144–5, 148, 164 Julius Caesar 49 King Lear 2, 8,22–3, 49, 50, 56–62, 69, 72, 103, 114, 193, 196, 197 Macbeth 135 Measure for Measure 22–3, 49–56, 61, 63, 75 The Merchant of Venice 49 The Tempest 8, 23, 24, 50, 62, 63, 70–6, 139–41, 217 n.22 The Winter’s Tale 8, 22–3, 50, 62–70, 76, 102, 139 Two Gentlemen of Verona 7 2 Henry IV 49 Sheehan, Paul 132, 133 Shifflet, Andrew 32 Sicari, Stephen 146, 147 Sierhuis, Freya 205 n.1 Song, Eric 206 n.11 Spencer, J. M. 208 n.4 Stock, Angela 208 n.7 Strachey, Lytton 214 n.21 Strier, Richard 209 n.15, 209 n.19


Stronks, Els 205 n.1 Sultzbach, Kelly Elizabeth 134 supplication. See forgiveness Surridge, Lisa 106, 109 Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica 9 Tolstoy, Leo Anna Karenina 142 Trollope, Anthony The Vicar of Bullhampton 77 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa) 14–16, 31, 153, 158–9 Tutu, Desmond 16, 158–9 Valentine, Henry 40 Van Dijkhuizen, Jan Frans 210 n.33 Vaughan, Alden T. 72 Vaughan, Virginia Mason 72 Wallace, Nathan 139–40 Warner, William 87 Wars of the Three Kingdoms 16, 31, 32 Waters, Catherine 106, 108 Welsh, Alexander 212 n.20 Westall, Richard R.A. 37 Whittington, Leah 10, 38, 45, 46, 206 n.16 Williams, Raymond 19 Williams, Rowan 116 Willington, George 40 Willis, Deborah 74 Wilson Knight, G. 56 Wilson, Richard 158 Woolf, Virginia 25 To the Lighthouse 25–6, 123–34, 146, 147, 151, 172 Worthington, Kim L. 174 Wüstenburg, Ralf 16 Young-Zook, Monica M. 117